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European countries consider a future without the United States as an ally

DON GONYEA, HOST:

After three-quarters of a century in partnership with America, Europeans are increasingly asking if they will have to go it alone. Even though President Biden continues to voice a strong commitment to Europe, Republicans in Congress last week blocked additional military aid for Ukraine, and Donald Trump said he would not protect NATO allies who had come up short on defense spending. We decided to invite two journalists from Europe to give us their countries perspectives of the latest developments - Dan Sabbagh, defense and security editor at Britain's Guardian newspaper, and Clemens Verenkotte, political editor at Bayerischer Rundfunk. That's in Germany. Clemens, we'll start with you, because right now you're actually in Munich, where an annual conference on European security is underway. How concerned are the participants that the U.S. may be backing away from Europe?

CLEMENS VERENKOTTE: Well, the concern is really substantial. Here at the Munich Security Conference, I talked with European militaries, with European politicians over the last one or two days. They got a kind of an alarm call saying, OK, we have to get our act much faster together. There was a huge call for intense armaments cooperation within the European partners of the EU. And people like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was saying, well, I call on all my European NATO partner countries to increase. And this is something which we haven't heard a couple of years ago.

GONYEA: And we'll stay with you, Clemens. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke Saturday morning at the conference. What did he have to say about the lack of U.S. support?

VERENKOTTE: Substantial. I mean, this time I got the impression that he was really very intense and saying, we are lacking munition. We are lacking support. Quote, "we are waiting for our partners to deliver." And this was for sure a call to the United States Congress or, more precisely, to the House.

GONYEA: And, Dan, just your take - what's your perspective from the U.K.?

DAN SABBAGH: Britain is in a rather complicated position. Partly because of Brexit, relations with the European Union aren't quite as strong as they once were, and Britain, of course, always wants to stay as close as possible to the U.S. But the reality is in the U.K. as well, you know, the realization is it's not clear that the U.S. can be relied upon to be a long-term security partner in NATO in the way that it has been before. And this is - this dilemma is made much more acute, you know, than it was last time when Trump was president, because of course, there's an ongoing war in Ukraine. And right now Ukraine desperately needs munitions. And right now the House of Representatives, Republicans in the House are preventing military aid coming through.

GONYEA: How much are European countries able to fill the gap created by this stalled aid package in the U.S. Congress? Go ahead, Dan.

SABBAGH: I think in time it's possible with a sustained and intense effort, that perhaps in 2025 or even in 2026 - although that, of course, means the war would last a very long time - it's possible that actually European companies could come forward and plug some of the gap in terms of weapons supply to Ukraine. But that isn't possible in 2024. And of course, the reality remains that, you know, the U.S. remains the world's largest military and the level of aid that was being halted in Congress - what is it, $60 billion? That's a phenomenal amount of money. And you're seeing that already impacting Ukraine on the battlefield. There's been a withdrawal from the front-line town of Avdiivka now. You know, Ukraine is being out-shelled by about 5 to 1 on the front line, so it badly needs help. And that might come through, but it's some way off at best.

GONYEA: Clemens, your take on Europe's ability to step up.

VERENKOTTE: I mean, I posed the same question to the Ukrainian minister of armament, and his long-term vision was basically the same what Dan was saying. Well, they will come up, and they will be able to deliver but not now.

GONYEA: Dan, you're in Brussels right now, where NATO headquarters is located. Do NATO members actually fear that Trump, if he does win the election this year - that he might follow through on his threat to let Russia do whatever it wants to one of our allies if they haven't spent enough on defense?

SABBAGH: Yes, there's undeniably that anxiety amongst NATO members. It's not even a question of precisely what Donald Trump says, although frankly, what he said was alarming enough. I - threatening not to defend any ally that didn't spend 2% of GDP on defense. But it's the fact that, you know, if you've learned anything from Donald Trump is, you know, he's erratic. He's unpredictable. It's really unclear what the strategy is at any point. And since the end of the Cold War, the truth, of course, is, you know, there is some truth in the fundamental argument. You know, Europe has allowed its defense industry and budgets to dwindle, relatively speaking, while the U.S. has sort of continued to spend very large sums of money. And Europe has benefited from that to some extent. There may be some force in the argument, but certainly now there's a feeling that you must act. Europe's already seen what a Trump presidency looks like. But the difference is this time, you know, there's a war in Ukraine. There's a heightened conflict in the Middle East. The possibility there'd be a major war in the European continent or a major conflict in the Middle East - both seemed very unlikely at that point.

GONYEA: Clemens, you're at the Munich Security Conference, where Kamala Harris has spoken a couple of times. What's your take on the assurances she is offering to Europe that the U.S. will be there for them?

VERENKOTTE: I mean, she was serious, and everybody was listening to her much more careful than a year ago or so. Why? Because first, she could be a replacement in one way or another. And Kamala Harris was for sure repeating everything what Joe Biden and (inaudible) always said, where in trying to really ensure European partners that they will stick to commitment, that there's no plan B, that everything will go along. But this is not convincing since everybody is really looking at November 5.

GONYEA: That was Clemens Verenkotte, political editor at Bayerischer Rundfunk in Germany, and Dan Sabbagh, defense and security editor at Britain's Guardian newspaper. Thank you to both of you for joining us.

SABBAGH: Thank you.

VERENKOTTE: Thanks for having us on show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.