Media Briefing: Update on the UK and France Elections and NATO Summit

Tuesday, July 9, 2024
REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska

Fellow for Europe, Council on Foreign Relations

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics, Council on Foreign Relations

Senior Fellow for Europe, Council on Foreign Relations

Elise Labott

Author, Cosmopolitics (Substack)

LABOTT: Thank you so much, Will. And thank you to members of the press and members of the CFR Corporate Program for this briefing on the European elections in the U.K. and France, and also the NATO summit taking place in Washington as we speak. We’re meeting as the summit is kicking off, and it’s supposed to be a great celebration—seventy-five years of the alliance. Instead, it’s really kind of turned into this gathering of beleaguered leaders, each grappling with their own political crises and the looming shadow of a potential resurgence by former President Donald Trump.

In Paris, President Macron’s snap parliamentary elections have left it with a divided parliament, and Europe’s unity at risk. Across the channel, Prime Minister Sunak’s gamble on early elections backfired, leading to a historic defeat for the Conservative Party, and a cautious embrace of Keir Starmer’s centrist Labour. And here in the U.S., if you’re turning on your TVs, you see that President Biden’s debate performance continues to spark international and domestic concern, further complicating the transatlantic alliance.

As NATO’s leaders gather under this cloud of uncertainty, obviously the specter of Donald Trump and his NATO skepticism haunts the proceedings. And European allies are bracing for these potential policy shifts. And the internal struggles within the alliance are coming to the fore, particularly over Ukraine’s path to membership. So this briefing will delve into these intricate dynamics in exploring how the NATO summit, along with those elections, will shape the geopolitical landscape.

And we have a great panel for you to discuss that today. I want to remind everybody, this conversation is on the record. And additional resources are available on, and the transcript—(audio break)—aspire to. We hear centrist. What does that mean for some of the big issues, like Ukraine and the war in Gaza? And how does that recalibrate its relationship with the EU?

MALLABY: Elise, you cut out a bit, at least for me. But I think you’re asking me to talk a bit about U.K. politics after the election. (Laughs.)

LABOTT: I’m sorry about that. Yes, let’s talk about the election, what it’s going to do to—(off mic)—and what sort of foreign policy does this new, you know, what we would say Labour, but what they are saying centrist, government aspire to? And what does that mean for some big issues, like Ukraine and Gaza. And how does it recalibrate its relationship with the EU?

MALLABY: Sure. Well, Britain’s political landscape is in stark contrast to the French one. The French one, you had the rise of both the left and the right extremes, whereas in Britain you have a big win for what is accurately called the centrist government. It’s the Labour Party, but it’s a very, very different Labour Party to the one that existed five years ago at the last election in 2019, when you had Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist person—both leftist in domestic policy terms, leftist in foreign policy terms, opposed the U.K. nuclear deterrent, was pretty skeptical of NATO, pretty skeptical of the EU. Now you have Keir Starmer, who is pro-European, pro-NATO, pro-defending the Ukraine, pretty responsible on economics.

He’s kind of the return of the technocratic deep state, in the sense that he is the former chief prosecutor in the U.K. crime prosecution service. So a sort of technocratic lawyer by background. His key ally is the finance minister, or as we say in Britain the chancellor of the exchequer. And she, Rachael Reeves, is a former Bank of England economist, very mainstream, very responsible, very keen on fiscal discipline. So it is very much a centrist proposition.

And in terms of foreign policy, it’s going to be pro-NATO. It’s going to be pro-nuclear deterrent. It’s going to be pro-trying to get a big closer to Europe after Brexit. Although, actually going back into the EU is totally off the cards, because it would take so long to negotiate and be so difficult. But it’s going to be, I think, sort of, I think, a positive force in the world that lacks for sort of pretty stable sort of centrist, pro-NATO types of government.

I’ll say one last thing, which is that, you know, in some ways the stability and the centrism of the U.K. outlook is a function of the political mechanics in Britain, right? You had a(n) election in which Keir Starmer won a record number of seats in Parliament—I mean, relative to past Labour victories. If you stack them all up, it’s equal first pretty much with 1997, when Tony Blair won his first big majority. So a terrific win in terms of the size of the parliamentary majority, which is what counts in terms of getting stuff done in Britain—a country with really minimal checks and balances—but not actually such a thumping victory in terms of vote numbers, because the margin of victory in the average constituency was just 12 percent. And so the kind of strong parliamentary majority is built on a relative fragile popular vote advantage.

LABOTT: Super quick follow here. You mentioned obviously you can’t go back into Brexit, but we—you know, the U.K., I guess, will be looking to kind of recalibrate that relationship with Europe. And, you know, you’ve pointed out yourself that, you know, since Brexit—you know, France and Germany have always been kind of heavyweights in the kind of EU and European space, particularly in the defense space. But now that you—after Brexit, you have the U.K. wanting to come back, maybe not into the EU, but to Europe’s embrace, and maybe take a greater role in foreign affairs. Is that possible? I mean, since Brexit, has it—have the, you know, levers of power gone to—and, you know, the economic situation is clearly very bad. Will Europe once again kind of be able to assert itself on the foreign policy stage, do you think?

MALLABY: You know, the reason I say Britain won’t rejoin the EU is that it takes a long time for any country to rejoin the EU.

LABOTT: Right.

MALLABY: And Britain is sort of in this—I had one senior British official describe it in terms of, like, it’s sort of reverse Goldilocks. You know, it’s a kind of middle of country which is too big to be given lots of exceptions if it were to try to negotiate for rejoining, because, you know, the consequences of the exceptions would be too big for the other members to accept. On the other hand, it’s not big enough to be totally irresistible as a partner. And so it’s kind of in this middle position where it’s going to be—it’s going to just be way tough.

You know, the Europeans won’t want to make exceptions. The British won’t want to go back in without some special kind of deals, because, after all, the country was negative on Europe before. So it just ain’t going to happen. And so what we can look at instead is security cooperation. You know, Britain, France, traditionally the two leading military powers in Europe—although Germany is catching up. And of course, Ukraine, were it to emerge from its own war, would be left with a vast, you know, military base as a result of the war. And Poland is not to be sniffed out. But, you know, it remains the fact that Britain and France are the two countries with permanent seats the U.N. Security Council, a nuclear deterrent, and a tradition, sort of, you know, by European standards, relatively un-weak defense.

But I think—and I think, you know, Britain was a leader in terms of the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Boris Johnson went there. One of the few good things he did was to be one of the first external leaders to promise military support and to go there really early and to show support for Zelensky. And I think that is—sort of the political dividends from that were noted by Keir Starmer. And he will want to try and do the same. So it is in the interest of the U.K. to, you know, as some—as, again, a senior official said to me just a few days ago, support Ukraine, do the right thing for European defense, try to take—you know, shoulder some more burden in NATO.

Because it is the right thing to do, but also because there could be a spinoff benefit to Britain in terms of generating a bit of goodwill in places like Berlin in terms of them leveraging that into non-military cooperation over, say, energy policy, critical minerals, and so forth. So I think that’s the Starmer government strategy, is lead with the defense and try to get some other kinds of cooperation kind of smuggled in with it, without ever talking about Brexit and undoing Brexit.

LABOTT: Right. Thanks for that. I mean, I know some Israeli officials are voicing a little concern about, you know, maybe moving more towards a more balanced approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Gaza. Maybe we’ll talk a little bit about that later on.

Matthias, let’s go to you. Pick up on, you know, where Sebastian was on the U.K. election. and let’s compare that to the French election. We also had a real dissatisfaction, maybe less with policies but more about the leadership. Voters were able to hold against the right, but they’re still making gains as time goes on. And now the left is super powerful, and the right have still made gains. So what will this new composition do to France’s political, social, and economic governance? And how will that affect foreign policy and its place in the EU and NATO?

MATTHIJS: Yeah. So I’ll pick up where Sebastian left off. I mean, Sunak called a snap election, and he got clarity, right? Probably not the clarity he was hoping for, but, you know. And it is true. I mean, I think it was Boris Johnson was one of the first ones to criticize this Labour majority by calling it a mile wide and an inch deep. And he does have a point, right? Even, I mean, Keir Starmer’s own seat that he had defended, the margin of victory for himself is much smaller than it was five years ago, let alone seven years ago.

So, but, I mean, the main point—the comparison between Britain and France and these elections is that electoral systems matter hugely, right? I mean, there is this sort of, I think, false narrative that emerged since yesterday or since Sunday night—Sunday afternoon in the U.S. that, you know, Macron somehow beat the far right. I mean, you know, like, the far right got 37 percent of the vote, but this only translated into 25 percent of the seats for the simple reason that there’s a two-round system, right?

And in the second round, Macron’s allies and the left plus far left basically agreed strategically to keep what they call the Front Républicain, or the Republican Front, against the far right. And that worked in the end quite beautifully, right? A lot of far-right candidates lost with, you know, 47, 46, 45 percent of the vote, but didn’t get their seats. The bigger picture, of course, is that in 2017 they had six seats, in 2022 they had eighty-nine seats, and now they have 143 seats, right? I mean, the trend is clearly up and there. And I think the taboo around them has completely been broken, right? This is no longer the scary far right. It’s now just become the more mainstream right, and people feel quite comfortable voting for them.

So the opposite side, of course, then you have the New Popular Front, right? Deliberately named after Léon Blum’s Popular Front of 1936, the kind of first socialist government in France that won against the right during the time of Hitler in the ’30s. They had something similar in 2022, but it quickly fell apart in Parliament. Now it looks much more likely that they’ll stick together. At least they want to try to do so in the coming—in the coming months. With 25-26 percent of the vote, they ended up with 31 percent of the seats. Same with Macron’s party. Twenty-four percent of the vote and roughly 29 percent of the seats, right?

So while Starmer got 34 percent of the vote and 65 percent of the seats, it’s quite a bit of a different story in France. So you could say Macron had a kind of twofold gamble, right? He wanted to break the far-right fever in France. And I think to some extent, he managed to do this, right? I mean, the fear was that they were going to have an absolute majority, or even close to it, and that with certain allies they would be able to govern. And then the idea was Macron would have them govern, and they would show how bad they were, and then they would lose in ’27. Well, that didn’t quite pay off, that part.

The second part Macron wanted is clarity, and that he did not get. So they are now—I grew up in Belgium, right, so this looks very familiar to me. They look in very Belgian territory, where they now have to find some sort of coalition government if they want to work. That said, the French system is different. It’s a semi-presidential system. The president keeps quite a bit of control. He can appoint basically anybody he wants as prime minister. That said, in the past where there have been cohabitations the prime minister had a majority in parliament. Now that’s not going to be the case, right?

So he basically has three options, as far as I can tell. One is he finds somebody from the left, the biggest force in parliament, somebody from the quote/unquote “reasonable” left, right, that some of his people in Ensemble and Renaissance and his party want to work with. But that almost entails them splitting again, right, basically giving up on the more far-left elements, whether that’s France Unbowed of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or whether that’s the Communist Party, or even The Ecologists, the greens, that are still—you know, they’re not centrist greens, right? They’re more radical than, let’s say, the greens in Germany—at least, today’s greens in Germany. Or he finds again somebody from his own party, maybe somebody more from the center-left part rather than the center-right, but who the left is willing to work with. Or a third option is that he basically appoints a government of technocrats that have no political affiliation to keep the show on the road and then hold new elections June 9 next year, because that’s what constitutionally is necessary.

So you’ve asked me what this means for foreign policy. Well, I mean, the news is not great because Macron was already hamstrung a little bit since 2022 because he lost his own majority in parliament. That said, his party and allies had 245 seats, right, close to a 289-seat majority. And they could, you know, pass quite a bit of legislation, with some support on the left or some support on the right, or they could govern by decree, Article 49.3 of the constitution that allows the president and the president’s government to bypass parliament. But of course, using that article over and over again—as he did to pass the budget, pension reform, and environmental changes—is what made him so unpopular in the first place, right? Because rightly, parliament was saying, you’re not listening to what the people want on this. So I think he’s going to want to be more cautious with this.

When it comes to Ukraine, that support will last because the French president is kind of very powerful. He controls foreign policy, the armed forces, the national security bodies, all of that. But domestic policy is going to be very different. He’s going to have to pass some sort of budget. And budget means money, including more money for Ukraine. That’s going to be probably harder to get. So whatever they have committed to, they’ll stick to. But going forward, that’ll be harder. You could also see them clash with Europe on the budget, right? France is now under an excessive deficit procedure, which means they’ll have to either cut spending or increase taxes. You could see the left agreeing on increasing taxes on the rich, and wealth taxes, and corporation taxes, and things like that. But they won’t agree on any of the spending cuts that are required, right? So it’s going to be a difficult few months. And so in many ways, if these were investors we were briefing, I’d probably say buy U.K., sell France at this moment.

LABOTT: (Laughs.) Thanks. That’s a great slogan.

Liana, let’s branch it out and talk about the repercussions across Europe, particularly in the wake of last month’s EU parliament elections. So we already talked about Macron and also Scholz in Germany took a beating from voters. You know, Prime Minister Meloni of Italy, Tusk of Poland, you know, definitely we’re seeing a lot of gaining on the right. Their parties are performing well, and they’re consolidating their power. And so centrists are holding in Europe, but, you know, when we have this whole sweep of elections in the EU and other countries where these countries are embroiled in their own political battles, you know, we might see a kind of weakening of leadership.

And that, you know, as we’re talking about, you know, France and Germany, it seems that engine, the Franco-German engine is—as I think you’ve said—is kind of a little bit in disrepair. And, you know, without collaboration between Paris and Berlin, you know, what really happens in—you know, very little change, I guess, would happen. So if you could kind of branch out to explain how these elections are impacting Europe and how, you know, without this kind of joint vision from France and Germany, is there a space for the U.K. here? Do we see some other countries from where the—where leaders in the right are taking over have more of a say?

FIX: Yeah. Thanks so much. I do agree with what you said there. At the moment, two competing narratives when it comes to the state of Europe in general. The one narrative is, well, the political center holds, we are still safe, Europe is stable on Ukraine support. And the other narrative is, well, absolutely not. We have the rise of the far right, and it’s just a very close call each time to defeat the far right, as has now happened in France. So what’s actually true when it comes to these two competing narratives?

I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Europe has been more stable and more lasting since the war against Ukraine broke out, despite all the challenges that it had. It has been more stable on Ukraine support than the United States. Something which you, as Americans, actually didn’t expect. Many in this town thought that Europeans would break first, whereas in the end it was the United States that, with the delay with the supplemental, actually had much more and much greater challenges is to bring Ukraine support together.

So while at the same time Europe is sort of still holding, we do have these tendencies of far-right increases. But we also have a more complex picture, that some far-right parties—not all of them, not, for example, the radical German far-right—but some far -right parties have understood by now that for as long as you commit to Ukraine support, you can do a lot.

LABOTT: You can do whatever you want. (Laughs.)

FIX: Well, perhaps not whatever you want, but you can do a lot domestically. And Meloni is the best example for that. And that’s a model that others will try to emulate, to a certain extent.

Will that work? And, sort of, what has it to do with European leadership? From the perspective of the United States, they always want this one leader, right? They always want this one phone number. I think this is entirely unrealistic. It has always been unrealistic. But it will be entirely unrealistic going forward in the future, because the Europe that we will have in the future will need not one leader, but it will need a leadership team that expands institutions and expands member states. So we need European leadership that includes NATO, that includes the EU, that includes the U.K., that includes EU representatives from Germany, France, and also Italy, as well as, for example, Poland. So those are the key actors that we have right now.

And why do we need a leadership team? Because if we have a prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House, Europe cannot remain in its kind of small silo decision making, where the EU Commission is doing trade with China, member states are doing support for Ukraine. It needs a much greater effort by Europeans across institutions and across sort of national divides to come together and to deal with the Trump challenge. And most Europeans that are here in town now for the NATO summit obviously much more nervous now after the U.S. debate than they have been before, about the prospect going forward.

And one particular topic to watch out for is how Europe’s populists, who still sort of fall in line, like Meloni, will behave in a potential Trump administration, a potential return of Donald Trump—if they will remain as restrained as they are, or if they will show something like their true core, if you want to call it that way. We already see with Orban how he’s trying to exploit the moment to position himself in the favors of Donald Trump, trying to conduct a peace diplomacy—which is definitely not in the name of the European Union. But even Orban has been someone who always folded in the end, right? I mean, he always got his concessions, but he always folded with the European Union and NATO. It took time. It took negotiation skills. But he always folded.

And if we see a return of Donald Trump, that can be something that really sort of empowers the populists, the far-right parties in in Europe, and gives them much more leverage than they have in the current political landscape in Europe. So the question about how far right and how powerful the far-right in Europe is going to be is also linked to the question how much empowerment will the far-right in Europe get from the outcome of the U.S. election.

LABOTT: Of the U.S. election. And that’s how we go to my friend Charlie Kupchan. That’s a—thank you, Liana. That’s a great way to kind of pull it all together and show us where we are in Europe as we get together for this NATO summit.

Now, Charlie, how should we see this in the U.S.? You know, the transatlantic relationship has—it’s had a rough few years between the Trump years, Brexit, you know, a lot of political dysfunction in Europe. And now we’ve seen, as Liana I think really laid it out well, this kind of gain of the far-right. And we—you know, obviously, we’re going to talk about the NATO summit in a minute—but clearly, as she said, there’s a lot of implications for whether Trump comes back. There are a lot of—you know, put that into context for us. And in the context of Biden himself, I would say, being a little bit of a wounded animal, in the sense of, you know, these NATO countries or these—this NATO summit is coming together with most of the leaders now kind of feeling not really so steady on their feet, if you will.

KUPCHAN: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe I’ll pick up on the language that Liana used about, you know, is the center holding? Because I think it’s the right question. And, you know, we live in a world that in some respects has become unrecognizable, right? The fact that here we are on this call talking about, you know, four leading democracies—the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and France—and whether kind of liberal democracy as we know it is going to survive—(laughs)—is a commentary on where we are. And you look at Freedom House or others that do the numbers, we live in a world in which democracy has been in recession for, I think, eighteen years, according to the most recent Freedom House report.

And so the question that I think one could ask is, OK, given what just happened in France, given what just happened in the U.K., is this a sign that we’ve made it through the storm and we’re on the other side? And I think the answer is no. That, as Sebastian said, you know, 37 percent is not a resounding vote share for the Labour Party. In some ways, you know, I think Labour did as well as it did less because of the appeal of a return to the centrism that Starmer advocates, and more because they just said: Let’s throw the bums out. They’ve been in office for fourteen years and life sucks, right? And so we’re going to try something else.

And in some ways, a similar picture emerges in France where, you know, as Matthias said, the National Rally got 37 percent of the vote. That’s a big share for the far right. And Matthias told us how many seats they have. They’ve been normalized, right? They’re now part of the political mainstream in ways that many of us could not have expected before. And so if the question is, is the glass more half full than glass half empty? I think it’s more half empty. And that’s because the trend lines are not good. The trend lines are not providing confidence that the center is holding. It—

LABOTT: Well, let me—let me pick up on that just as you finish the thought, and then I want to turn to NATO. The center—is the center holding in in Europe? You know, maybe not. Is the center going to—is the center holding here? Or is kind of the MAGA mentality being more mainstreamed? And how is that going to affect the transatlantic relationship?

KUPCHAN: I think the center is in worst shape in the U.S. and the U.K. than it used to be in continental Europe. Unfortunately, continental Europe is heading the same way. They’ve caught the bug. And I think what’s going on here is that we are facing underlying socioeconomic conditions that are leading to profound dislocation and voter discontent. I mean, is the Labour Party going to be able, under conditions of fiscal constraints, to get the National Health Service back up on its feet? Is the United States going to, you know, make it through this current pitch?

I’m in Rome. I turned on the TV this morning, CNN, where you used to work, Elise. And I expected to hear all about the NATO summit. And for the first twenty minutes it was nothing about the NATO summit, and it was all about Biden and his cognitive function.

LABOTT: Well, that’s a whole ’nother panel that we have to have on that. But, yeah, I get your point, yeah.

KUPCHAN: No, but the bottom line here is that we are living through a very unusual and somewhat scary political moment on both sides of the Atlantic. The center is sort of holding, and sort of not. But we—there are many chapters of this book to come. Stay tuned.

LABOTT: Yeah. Yeah. And to your point, I just meant that, like, you know, the fact that that’s all people are really kind of focusing on, you know, the perception becomes the reality. And that’s certainly something I think we’re going to be discussing as we move towards the election. I want to, we’re going to go to your questions, audience, in a few minutes. I just want to lay out some kind of markers for where we are as we gather for the European—for the NATO summit. And then ask each of the panelists to just take a minute or so to kind of reflect on, you know, where we are as we come to the summit, given everything we’ve discussed, and where, you know, kind of NATO is headed. And then we’ll open up to questions.

So the way I see it is NATO is, arguably, in a stronger place than ever, I think we can all agree. Larger, pretty unified, back to its kind of original mission of defending Europe and putting in the resources to make it work, including a lot of these smaller nations and ones, you know, closer to—closer to Europe. But as Liana and I were talking before the event started, I mean, you know, it’s supposed to be this great celebration, but let’s, like, just have an honest, you know, kind of come to Jesus discussion about where we are in NATO. We’re also having this schizophrenic moment, as Charlie had said, this cloud of uncertainty—the potential of Trump’s return, what would that do for U.S. membership? We have the war in Ukraine. Is NATO really going to be able to—you know, I heard Leon Panetta say yesterday in an event, are we really going to build that bridge for Ukraine to get in? And you also have new challenges that members are going to be dealing with, such as the threat from China.

And so as NATO discusses some of these things—the future threats, the need for industrial production. There was an interesting—and then I’m going to close it and put it over to you. There was an interesting op-ed yesterday from Marc Thiessen, a Republican analyst who’s a supporter of Trump, and said that, you know, we need a MAGA-style makeover to fortify NATO. And he raised a couple of things. He said, raise the NATO spending from 2 percent to 3 percent. Enshrine those levels in the North Atlantic Treaty. Launch a second defense buildup to strengthen the U.S. military. Shift U.S. troops from Germany to Poland and the Baltics. Force Putin to sue for peace by, you know, really arming Ukraine.

And, Charlie, I think those are some things that a lot of people, even Democrats, I hear talking about that maybe Trump, you know, if NATO was to take this kind of look, maybe, you know, Trump wouldn’t want to—want to, you know, go away from NATO. Why don’t you start us off and just talk about where we are at this incredible moment that you just discussed.

KUPCHAN: Yeah. I mean, I think you’re right, Elise, that NATO is in remarkably good shape despite the fact that it’s seventy-five years old and that its original enemy disappeared several decades ago. Most alliances disappear under those circumstances. NATO is now back in business in terms of collective defense. Great solidarity. Two-thirds of the members are now meeting the 2 percent benchmark of GDP on defense. And, you know, I have to say that I would have predicted that by now there would be more wobbliness when it comes to support for Ukraine. But other than the Slovaks and the Hungarians, everybody is staying the course. And, as Matthias and Sebastian said, the elections in France and in the U.K. don’t show signs of really changing that.

Let me just put three issues out there that I think beneath the surface will eventually be on NATO’s plate, but I’m not sure they’re going to get a lot of attention in the next couple of days. One is we’ve done a remarkable job of helping Ukraine defend itself. Eighty-plus percent of the country is still standing under Kyiv’s control. I think we’re going to pivot to a new strategy sometime, sooner rather than later, probably after the November election, that focuses on defending the part of Ukraine that is still Ukraine and on ensuring that it survives as a democratic, prosperous, secure country. I think that the prospect of Ukraine—

LABOTT: Something you’ve recommended for months, by the way.

KUPCHAN: Yeah. I think the prospect of Ukrainian victory, the expulsion of Russia from Crimea and Donbas, ain’t going to happen. Maybe through diplomacy after Putin is dead, but no time soon. The whole question of NATO enlargement and membership for Ukraine, in my mind, is fraught. We made a commitment to it in 2008 in Bucharest because George W. Bush and Angela Merkel couldn’t agree. So they came up with this formula that Ukraine and Georgia will one day be a NATO member. And now we seem to be heading down that course without, in my mind, sufficient attention to the pros and cons of that.

And my final comment, Elise, would be to sort of tie our conversation in the first half to this—where we are now. In some strange way, the core issues that NATO ought to be talking about are nowhere on the agenda. And that—by that I mean that in some ways the greatest threat to the West, to NATO right now, is not Putin or Xi Jinping. It’s us, right? It is the erosion of our political centers, the threat that poses to liberal democracy. What I think they best ought to be talking about is how to make sure our workers are earning a living wage, how to get immigration under control, how to tame and regulate AI before it causes more socioeconomic dislocation. Strength starts at home. Those are the issues that I think should be front and center. But, admittedly, that’s not NATO’s bread and butter. Its bread and butter, aiding Ukraine, I think, will be adequately addressed.

LABOTT: Right. Sebastian, take it from Charlie. I mean, these are kind of the things that you think Labour would be paying attention to as it looks towards, you know, its reintroduction into the international scene under Prime Minister Starmer.

MALLABY: Yeah. I mean, I think Labour will be looking at those things, thinking about them. But by itself, Britain is not going to drive the debate. I think—I mean, I think what I’d like to double-click on from what Charlie was saying is that I think NATO needs to make a transition from simply emphasizing support for Ukraine—which is sort of the obvious first thing that’s important. But then, you know, transitioning from that to the political/diplomatic side of what does a ceasefire look like? Even if peace is impossible, a ceasefire that, you know, turns Ukraine into South Korea and not into South Vietnam.

And I think, you know, Ukraine needs two things. It needs, first of all, some sort of security guarantee. Doesn’t have to be membership of NATO, but it has to be something as credible as possible, because otherwise why would they just let Putin have a respite until he then attacks again. So they need the security guarantee. And then they also, I think, need, to bind themselves into the West, a credible path to EU membership. Because that will drive the sort of institutional reform and Westernization that could turn the remaining 80-something percent of Ukraine into a successful, prosperous, Western-facing capitalist democracy.

And so those are the two things that I think NATO needs to move towards. You know, it can’t be—like, it’s super difficult for people in Ukraine to initiate the conversation because they’re going to look weak the moment they say this. But I think some sort of external catalyst that tries to put the terms of a credible ceasefire on the table is essential. And NATO, hopefully, will be part of that. If not in these discussions this week, then perhaps after the November election.

LABOTT: Mmm hmm. Matthias, why don’t you speak about that in terms of Macron? Obviously, he’s been, you know, part of the more forward-leaning crowd on doing everything it takes for Ukraine. So just give us some reflections on where we are as we start this summit, and what you think—what you’re going to be looking for.

MATTHIJS: Well, I mean, Macron is more complicated, right? He wasn’t quite forward leaning in the beginning.

LABOTT: (Laughs.) True.

MATTHIJS: We all remember that long table he sat up, right, during the—

LABOTT: Now he wants to put troops in.

MATTHIJS: Yeah. One point from Charlie I want to pick on is, like, NATO’s bread and butter, unfortunately, is guns, right? And so they—when it comes to what Sebastian just said, when comes to EU enlargement to Ukraine, I mean, that’s where I think Charlie’s point about the center holding or not holding, then the question is for what, right? If it’s holding, it clearly should be to push forward the sort of institution building of the EU and to bring in—bring in those countries, which it has to do very fast. And it’s just right now, for anybody who studied this, it’s just very hard to see a quick membership path for Ukraine in the EU, right? I mean, the NATO question, in a sense, is easier. There all you need is for the fighting to end, which, of course, is not particularly easy but at least there’s a clear line there.

I mean, what’s interesting about Macron, of course, is that he’s the one who called NATO brain dead, famously, a few years ago. And now, at least in theory, is advocating much more EU strategic autonomy within NATO, rather than in competition with or in competition with the United States. That said, my sense is—and I’m sure that’s true for Liana and for Charlie and for Sebastian—whenever you talk to NATO officials and you ask them who the most difficult partners are, it’s not the Slovaks, it’s not the Hungarians. You can do deals with them. But it’s the French, right?

The French still have this sort of innate, is it anti-NATO? Is it that there’s a bit of latent anti-Americanism left there? Some desire to lead, and some Gaullist sort of legacy that’s still there? And I think that is something they will still have to overcome themselves, right? Whenever things move forward—I mean, all the talk right now—actually the talk is over. It has been decided, right? This summit is a celebratory summit and there’s no more big decisions to be taken. They’ve all been taken. But all the things NATO is doing at the summit is Trump-proofing the alliance, right? Committing to 40 billion for the next year, putting everything under NATO command rather than under U.S. command, with U.K., Germany, France, and so on.

And so that is where France—the question is, can they still lead in Europe on that sort of EU pillar for defense, right? Because when you talk about bringing the U.K. back in, and it’s not going to rejoin any EU institution whatsoever—political or economic—then this needs a very different sort of infrastructure, right? And so that I think is where France can still lead, but they will have to give up on the idea that this all has to be done within the EU context. EU can play a role, whether it’s procurement and other things. I mean, Liana can talk better about this than me. But I think France finds itself now in this schizophrenic position where—I mean, are they—are they with NATO? And can they lead the EU part of it under NATO? Or are they still somehow in this mindset where they feel Europe should take its equal distance from the U.S. and the Chinese?

LABOTT: Liana, take a minute to kind of close out the—you know, round it out from a bigger picture perspective, both from Europe’s—the greater Europe’s point of view, but also in terms of the non-Ukraine, non-Russia, you know, future of NATO. We mentioned China. We mentioned that, you know, there need to be other threats. You know, this whole idea of industrial production is a big issue. You know, future intelligence, future human intelligence and technology. These are all things NATO really—you know, it can’t just be this, you know, let’s go after Russia, let’s save Ukraine organization. It really needs to think more about collective defense on a grander scale.

FIX: Yeah, absolutely. Two points to what my colleague said before. I do think it is an illusion that Ukraine can join the EU without joining NATO. And I do think this NATO summit is a historical window of opportunity that has closed to outline a path, a timeline, and criteria for Ukraine to achieve membership in NATO. I think this opportunity is missed, and I don’t think this opportunity will come back soon. And I think it’s to the detriment of the security of us all that this opportunity has not been used to define a clearer path of Ukraine into NATO membership, because that in the end—at least from my perspective—will be the only way how we will have security, a lasting security and a lasting peace agreement.

And the reason for that is that there is not enough political will, because—exactly as Matthias said—it’s all about Trump-proofing NATO, it’s about Trump-proofing U.S. support for Ukraine. But it’s not about a long-term, conceptual solution to the question of security in Europe. And that sort of leads to your question, sort of what is it beyond Ukraine and Russia? Obviously, the China question here has an entirely new dimension that Europeans are not yet fully acknowledging. So China and NATO, it’s not only about Taiwan anymore. It’s not only about NATO’s role in the Indo-Pacific. It’s about China supporting Russia to continue not only its war in Ukraine, but also to pose a threat to Europe and to the NATO alliance.

China’s support for Russia has escalated in quantitative and qualitative terms to such an extent that a potential President Donald Trump in the White House, if he’s asked why he should continue Ukraine support, while at the same time Europeans are not responding to China’s support for Russia, will ask: Well, why should I support Ukraine from the one side if China is neutralizing all the support I’ve given from the other side, and Europeans are not doing anything about it? So this is going to be a big issue at this summit, but it’s only going to increase as an issue until the next summit, that China has chosen its support for Russia. It has allowed Russia to reconstitute its military much faster.

And therefore China is not only relevant anymore for the Indo-Pacific or for Taiwan, China is relevant for European security and is directly, through its support for Russia, a threat to Europe and to NATO. And that’s something that Europeans will have to acknowledge pretty fast, because once Donald Trump gets that briefing they will be in a difficult spot to explain why they have not countered China’s efforts.

LABOTT: Yeah. All right. Thanks. That was a great discussion. And now we’re going to go to questions. A reminder, this is on the record.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

And now I’m going to hand it over to Will, who will be calling on the panelists and the questioners.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our first question from Willem Buiter.

Q: Good afternoon. This is very interesting.

I’d like to make a comment on the pessimistic view of the future relationship between the EU and Britain that was presented. It’s true that Keir Starmer last week insisted again that the U.K. will not rejoin the EU in his lifetime, right? He’s sixty-one years old. Expected lifetime, eight-five years. So twenty-five years of respite there. But this is not where it stops, because Starmer said more than that. He said the U.K. will also not to rejoin the single market, or the customs union, or, indeed, the freedom of movement. These things can be negotiated separately, much less involved than the whole membership. And we will see that happening. Seventy-one percent of Labour voters want to reverse Brexit. They’re not going to sit on their hands.

LABOTT: Let’s keep the—let’s keep the question a little short. Sebastian, why don’t you pick that up? Were these just comments, or is this—will the realities of government, you know, kind of soften these positions? Keep it short.

MALLABY: Well, Willem, you know, who knows a lot about this subject, is right that public opinion has shifted such that if you had the referendum now, you know, you wouldn’t get Brexit. And the public is more pro-Europe. And, indeed, even conservatives, or people who voted in in favor of Brexit, support closer trade ties with Europe, according to some opinion polls. So to that extent, I agree with Willem. But I just think that the diplomatic obstacles to actually negotiating anything useful are so daunting that it wouldn’t be a good idea for Keir Starmer, who’s got lots of other things on his plate in terms of domestic policy, to put them at the top of the priority list. And indeed, you know, I know this to be also the view of the key people in the U.K. Foreign Service. I mean, they just think it’s not a good bet to invest in those negotiations when they’re so unlikely to pay off.

LABOTT: Willem, thank you very much for your comment.

Next question, Will.

OPERATOR: There are no other virtual hands raised at this moment.

LABOTT: OK. Well, we have a few extra minutes. Again, if you have a question, please press your raise-hand button on the Zoom—on the Zoom button.

Let’s talk, Charlie, a little bit more about what NATO would look like under Trump, if Trump comes back. And we did—I did kind of lay out some of those things that Marc Thiessen kind of suggested. I mean, I do think that, you know, some of these smaller countries are already getting it. Yesterday I was at this event with the Estonian defense minister and some other—some other leaders from the region. And he was saying, look, we get it. We’re stepping up. We think we need to go even further. Is it possible that NATO could kind of turn this around as—you know, not as a Trump-proofing, but, you know, use this as a, you know, opportunity to get leaner and meaner and smarter and evolve.

KUPCHAN: I mean, I think that the resurgence that we’ve seen in NATO and the commitment of member states to shoulder their fair share, number one, is durable. This is not a flash in the pan. There has been, I would say, what one could call an existential wake-up in Europe to geopolitical realities. And debates in most European countries in terms of the nature of our moment, I think, are staring in the face an existential sense of fear that they thought was gone for good. And so I don’t think that this is just under Biden or just under a particular complexion. We’re likely to see the salience of the Atlantic alliance last.

And I don’t think Trump is going to withdraw from NATO. I think Trump has no reason to withdraw from NATO. He always asks, what’s in this for me? And if you ask, what’s in it for Trump to dismantle the Western alliance, the answer is nothing. And so I think he’ll continue to lean on Europeans to do more. He will try to offload some responsibilities to Europe, as it spends more. I think the key change will be to do what Sebastian mentioned, and that is to push for a ceasefire and some kind of end to the fighting in Ukraine. Although, actually, I think that would happen even if Biden wins because I think it’s inevitable.

And one of the conversations that I think we do need to have is the costs of the war in Ukraine at home. I think one of the reasons that you’re seeing illiberal populists make headway is because of opposition to incoming Ukrainian refugees, because of opposition to continuing to aid Ukraine. In our case, in the U.S., because of the appeal of an America first narrative. I don’t think that aid to Ukraine, at levels that it has been provided, is sustainable over the long haul. My best guess, the 61 billion (dollars) that made it through Congress after a seven-month delay is probably the last American package of that size. That’s just political reality.

LABOTT: It looks like we have another hand up, Will.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Kristian Brachman (ph).

LABOTT: Kristian (ph), are you muted? All right. We’ll try to get her back.

Liana, talk about Europe. And I know there’s this talk about kind of Trump-proofing in terms of NATO and discussion about Ukraine, but in a larger sense talk to me about the mood in Europe right now, about what’s going on. As Charlie was saying, like, all this talk about, you know, Biden’s fitness and a potential Trump coming back. Like, I mean, I remember it just being really, really tense and bitter between the Trump administration and the Europeans. What’s the mood there now?

FIX: Yeah. I mean, the levels of anxiety have obviously increased since the—since the debate. And one of the problems, I think, of the Biden administration has been that they have given Europeans a sense of stability and continuity that sort of led them to feel as if Europe is back in this kind of nostalgic age of strong U.S. leadership, and Trump was just a historical accident and will not come back. Now there’s a real chance that he is coming back. And what Europeans are doing is they’re focusing on trying to preview what Trump is going to do. And they’re trying to preview who is going to do it. So who’s going to be in the team, and can they get access to these people.

I don’t think that’s actually a helpful approach for Europeans because it’s so incredibly difficult to really find out what Trump will do, because he sets up different power centers and so on. So you will never find out what exactly is going to happen. What Europeans should do instead is to think about how they can collaborate amongst each other on the topics that they assume Trump will address, and how they can sort of react strategically and tactically to his moves. So, for example, if he proposes a Ukraine -Russia peace summit, is that something that Europeans would oppose? What if he blackmails Europeans to go into a summit like this? Could they play along tactically, but then try to undermine it?

So these kinds of strategic/tactical considerations, this is what Europeans should focus on. Finding out what their red lines are together as Europeans, including the U.K., including Europe, including the EU Commission there. And sort of developing scenarios for this, instead of what many experts expect, that Europeans will just break apart and everyone is trying to seek cover for themselves. So Poland will pursue a bilateral relationship with the U.S., asking for German nukes to be transferred from Germany to Poland. Others will sort of—you know, to focus on additional security agreements with the United States at a bilateral level.

That is the worst-case scenario. And hopefully with Macron still there, with the U.K., and with Germany also still being there despite the upcoming elections, we will see after the elections a shift towards working out strategies and tactics, instead of everyone bilaterally trying to get access to a new potential Trump administration.

LABOTT: Yeah, Matthias, we’ve been talking in terms of kind of a security architecture, but it’s not just about security if Trump comes back. There are all these kind of tariffs and, you know, he’s not just talking about—you know, actually, defense is one of the things that he’s kind of, I think, less interested. He’s more interested in the economic relationships. And, you know, as the Europeans are kind of maybe hedging their bets with China, I mean, I could potentially see Trump coming back and it becoming a much more tense economic relationship with Europe.

MATTHIJS: Oh, absolutely. And that’s, I think, something they are probably much more thinking about right now and much better prepared for as a result. But I agree with Charlie’s transactional point earlier. I mean, Trump is not a kind of ideological isolationist, in that sense. He is unilateralist, which of course has been the complaint of many Europeans over the last thirty years. But similar for trade, right? I mean, it’s also the case that the Europeans have just as much leverage over Trump as Trump has over the Americans, right? Europe can hurt U.S. business interests as much as America can hurt European business interests. The main reliance is on the security part, where America does provide Europe’s security umbrella and has allowed them to build these very generous welfare states with long holidays in the summer, and so on.

But when it comes to the economic relationship, I mean, what’s going to be interesting to see is what happens to IRA, for example. That’s been a thorn in the side of the EU. And that was during the Biden administration. And of course, the EU has nowhere near the capacity to match that, right, to have a sort of EU-wide IRA. It simply doesn’t work in that way. It can’t do industrial policy because it goes against its kind of innate principles of the single market and the single currency. But here as well, I would imagine that Europeans offering in investing in the U.S. and opening up European markets to U.S. investors, would probably go a long way.

That said, when it comes to China I can see a lot more pressure from a Trump administration on aligning EU policies with the U.S. In a way that there’s plenty of pressure right now from the Biden people on the EU, but, you know, the EU can still kind of chart its own course. And also, let’s be honest, there’s twenty-seven China policies in the EU, not one, right, unlike in the United States. Here in the U.S., if there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on, it’s being tough or tougher on China.

And actually on decoupling. As much as they use the European term, derisking, what’s really happening here is that the U.S. is decoupling from China. Not in the way that they think, right? It just probably means that whatever went straight from China to the U.S. now goes via Vietnam and then Mexico into the U.S. So in that sense, globalization is becoming more real, as in supply chains are getting longer not shorter. But that’s nowhere near what the Europeans think about. I mean, Germany thinks very different of how to derisk from China than the Scandinavians do, or Southern Europe does, or Eastern Europe does. And even within those regions within Europe, there’s different views. But I can see the tension be much, you know, more severe when it comes to dealing with China then it will be on the bilateral relationship.

LABOTT: Yeah. Sebastian, we have about a minute left or so. Why don’t you close it out for us with some thoughts about where the special relationship would go under Trump. You would think with this Labour government, not as great as it would have been under the Conservatives.

MALLABY: No, that’s right. I think if there’s one thing that a sort of centrist, green-tinged U.K. government is not going to like is Donald Trump-style policy. I do think that there’s a—there’s an interesting test case, though, if there is another Trump term, in the extent to which rhetoric matters sometimes as much as actual policy. Because Trump’s policies may end up being not much more unilateral than, you know, Biden’s policies have been. Biden has forced the Europeans to do stuff on semiconductors in China, which really the Dutch and the Germans wouldn’t have wanted to do but they were forced to support semiconductor sanctions. The Europeans hated the IRA because of the buy America provisions.

It’s not like it’s been a picnic between the U.S. and the EU on economic—international economic policy. But what’s different about Trump is that the rhetoric is likely to be way, way, way more kind of randomized and sort of provocative and unsettling. And, you know, stuff like, you know, who needs Article 5, and all that kind of thing. Sometimes the rhetoric is the reality because you’re trying to play psychological games in deterrence with Russia and so forth. And so I’m afraid that’s what we might learn the hard way, is the power of rhetoric.

LABOTT: Well certainly a lot of discussion will continue, not just this week but then we have the conventions, and the UNGA coming up, and then the elections. So a lot of opportunity to continue the discussion. I want to remind everybody that this conversation has been on the record. Additional resources are available on Transcript and video will be posted online, available at the CFR website and on the Foreign Affairs website. I want to thank my panelists—Sebastian, Liana, Matthias, and Charlie. And thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations. And thanks to you all for joining us.


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