This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
US-Iranian tensions have revived concern over the European Union’s difficulty in speaking with authority on the world stage.
“I don’t see that there’s greater unity in Europe than there was in 2003,” says Thanos Dokos, Director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, referring to European divisions over the Second Gulf War. “If anything, there is less.”
In the runup to European Parliament elections this month, Iran threatened to depart from a deal struck in 2015 with US President Obama, that lifted trade sanctions against Tehran in return for a vastly scaled down nuclear programme.
Even though President Trump last year abrogated the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the EU still supports it and has refused to renew sanctions.
When Tehran forced the moment to its crisis, however, Washington proved far more dynamic than Brussels, evacuating non-essential staff from its embassy in Baghdad and announcing, through its envoy John Bolton, the arrival of a carrier group in the Gulf. The world braced for a military show of force.
The US has been able to weaponise its economic clout, while the EU has not. The EU attempted to bypass sanctions by creating a payments channel called Instex, short for Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges. It is designed to allow European companies to make payments to Iran independently of the US-dominated global financial transactions system. But EU companies have been reluctant to use it, because their investments in the US would have been penalised.
For the EU, the economic stakes are high. The emergence of Iran from decades of sanctions created a new market of 80 million people for European agricultural products, pharmaceuticals, machinery, capital and services. Iran had purchased 120 aircraft from EU companies in deals worth tens of billions of dollars. Those aircraft cannot now be delievered. France’s petroleum giant Total was forced to withdraw from a $4.8bn deal to develop the world’s largest gas field, South Pars, jointly owned by Iran and Qatar. Iranian oil and gas would have helped to lower the EU’s dependence on Russian gas. Greek and Cypriot merchant shipping, making up most of the EU fleet, would have offset some of China’s economic slowdown.
“European leaders increasingly want to show that they can act independently in foreign policy, because they face challenges on the domestic front, because Europe is treated with scepticism, because of Trump’s intransigence and because of new crises. So foreign policy is an area of great political potential again,” says Kostas Lavdas, professor of European politics at Panteion University in Athens.
Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the creation of a European army. “We must have a Europe that can defend itself on its own, without relying only on the United States,” Macron said.
Days later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the idea in a speech to European Parliament, saying it would be “a good addition to NATO,” not a competitor.
But the obstacles to a credible European military remain large. The EU has no unified command and control structure of its own. Its defence industry is plagued by complexity, redundancy and national rivalry. Its member states do not, as a rule, spend two percent of GDP on defence, as NATO demands, and it does not have qualified majority voting on foreign policy, meaning that a single dissenting member state can block consensus.
The EU’s lack of reflexes became painfully obvious in 2015, when a million asylum-seekers crossed the Aegean onto the continent. It took a year for EU member states to strengthen the Greek coast guard. NATO acted faster, sending ships to patrol and spot flotillas in early 2016.
Europe learned to rely on NATO for its defence during the Cold War, and NATO has proven durable since the fall of communism, not least because former Warsaw Pact countries saw it as a security guarantee against the Russian Federation and flocked to join.
But NATO comes with US foreign policy strings attached. “It’s clear that the Trump administration believes the sanctions will lead to a social explosion and regime change in Iran,” says Lavdas. “It doesn’t appear that that is feasible right now… but Trump’s short-term goal is to increase pressure to bring Iran to a new [nuclear] agreement, which is an electoral interest.”
The EU is facilitating US policy by maintaining communication channels with Iran. For the foreseeable future, it appears that it is locked in to its role as second violinist.