Brussels, Berlin, DusseldorfIn the Washington bureau of John Bolton, the United States Presidential Security Advisor, hangs a trophy: the framed decree by Donald Trump almost exactly a year ago, prompting the US exit from the nuclear deal with Iran. There is hardly a better symbol of the transatlantic alienation in the Trump era: Europeans consider the aggressive Iran policy a big mistake, the US government celebrates it as one of its proudest achievements.
And there is hardly a better symbol of the failure of a common European foreign policy as a whole. The Iran policy, the question of China, the relationship with Russia or even the transatlantic trade dispute – in any of the important geopolitical or geo-economic conflicts, the European Union finds a unified position – let alone a common strategy.
It's hard to say what makes the Europeans more frustrated: Trump's brutal America-first politics or his own powerlessness. For the first time in the post-war era, Washington is ruled by a president who sees Europe as an opponent. When Trump was asked which power was “the US's biggest enemy globally,” he first called the EU, only then traditional rivals like China and Russia.
The Europeans' attempts to use the Trump shock to advance a common foreign and security policy and, where necessary, a “counterweight to the US” (Foreign Minister Heiko Maas) have failed. In the Trump era, international law has the right of the strongest – and that's the US.
Outgoing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker likes to talk about Europe's “world-political capability” – she remained wishful thinking of the Brussels elites even after almost five years in office. Federica Mogherini – this is the name of the “High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy” – is the friendly face of European foreign policy that nobody really knows.
he young Italian woman says about herself that she does not want to “demonstrate strength”, but seeks dialogue. In 2014, she surprisingly became Brussels' chief diplomat – even though she had only been Italian Foreign Minister for a year. Really imagine the nice Italian woman in an argument with a Sergei Lavrov, the shrewd foreign policy heavyweight of Russia, not. That was already so under her much-criticized predecessor Catherine Ashton, whose political maxim seemed to be, “just do not stand out”.
Such an unambitious foreign policy would be sustainable in normal times. Now that the US president is not only questioning the world order which has grown over the decades, but actively combating it, it is untenable. The temptation is great to seek out the reasons for Europe's geopolitical inability in Washington. But the reasons are deeper. It is the internal contradictions of the continent, the incompatible policies of EU members.
“There is no European reaction to the policies of the Trump government; There are at least three: strategic autonomy, strategic patience, and strategic embrace, “says Karen Donfried, head of the German Marshall Fund. “Paris is raving about strategic autonomy, the pursuit of Europe's independence from the US has a long tradition there,” said Donfried, who has worked in the White House as Europe's advisor to Barack Obama.
In Berlin, one should be more cautious: “Above all, the Chancellery relies more on strategic patience, on the hope that the transatlantic relationship to Trump will improve again.” Eastern Europe finally rely on a strategic embrace of the Trump government: “The Poles drives the fear in front of an aggressive Russia and the concern that Germany and France would not support them in case of emergency. “
The problem: Europe's foreign policy cacophony is not only in the attitude towards the US government, it is reflected in almost all major geopolitical fields. Take Russia, for example: while Italy and Austria sympathize with the increasingly imperialist Vladimir Putin, the Eastern European countries, such as Poland or the Baltic states, warn of a soft course against Moscow.
Germany, as so often, fluctuates between the two positions. The EU states are severely divided, for example, in the Nord Stream 2 question. The pipeline is supposed to lead more Russian gas to Germany. Paris stands in this case on the side of the Americans, who are strictly against this project and open threatened with countermeasures.
In Eastern Europe, Nord Stream 2 is even classified as a security risk, not only because every ruble earned in the energy business also fills the Kremlin's war chest. But also because the pipeline significantly increases the power of Moscow over Ukraine. So far, Russia needs the Ukrainian pipeline to pump the gas to the west.
In turn, Ukraine needs the fees that Russian gas exporters pay for transit. This sensitive balance of interests is disturbed by Nord Stream. It was always a German illusion to believe that Nord Stream was a purely economic project. It is not just about natural gas for the West, but also about the question of whether Ukraine can assert its state existence achieved three decades ago.
The China question
Even more decisive for the foreign policy emancipation of Europe is dealing with China. After all, the Commission has now declared the People's Republic to be a “strategic rival,” and the fact that Macron had recently spontaneously invited the Chancellor to its summit with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was a surprising gesture.
But even these positive developments can barely hide the fact that the EU has no line with the rising superpower, which offers itself worldwide as an antidemocratic system alternative to the West. Countries such as Italy, Greece and the Visegrad states of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary see Chinese investment as more important than a single policy towards Beijing.
The biggest affront from the point of view of Brussels: in the media, the EU founding member Italy joined the Silk Road Initiative in March – a gigantic infrastructure project along the traditional Silk Road. “It is already clear to me that some like to squint to Beijing, because they do not get the financial possibilities elsewhere,” blamed the Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at that time.
The Chinese would give the countries credit for the planned infrastructure projects. If they do not pay their debts, China could eventually acquire ownership of sensitive infrastructure. That was “problematic” for the entire EU.
The good Greek-Chinese relations have once caused great irritation. Year after year, the EU complained to the United Nations about the human rights situation in China – by 2017. Greece suddenly vetoed it and the EU's hitherto customary China-critical position failed.
Chinese debt diplomacy had worked. The EU stood there disgraced. At least the Europeans have obviously recognized the problem, says European expert Donfried. “Europe has long seen China only as a Far Eastern market. But now China is moving west, and Europeans are finding China's targeted takeover of critical infrastructure a threat. “
How hard an independent Chinese EU foreign policy is, the case shows Huawei. The Americans are calling for an exclusion of the Chinese network equipment provider on suspicion of espionage – and even threatened to cease intelligence agency cooperation with countries where Huawei is building the 5G mobile phone standard.
Europe does what it usually does: to lavish. First, create risk analyzes and develop common safety standards. After all, announced Chancellor Angela Merkel, the French President Emmanuel Macron and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, not to join the US ban.
By decree, Trump had given the US government the full right to target companies – Huawei, of course – if they threatened national security. Britain tends to side with the Americans. Above all, Germany is very cautious, because it sees its economic interests in China at risk.
Fact is: Europe will inevitably be drawn into the new cold war between the US and China – whether it likes it or not. As European companies adhere to Washington's Iranian sanctions in anticipatory obedience, they will also avoid deals on the China issue that could jeopardize their economic interests in the United States.
Especially in the Iran question reveals the powerlessness of the Europeans. All attempts to save the nuclear agreement failed. Shortly after the US sanctions on Tehran came into force, the EU created a defense law to save the biggest international diplomacy of recent years, as it is called in Brussels. This prohibits European companies to comply with the sanctions. In return, the EU provides legal protection.
However, US threats to end dealings with companies doing business in Iran have disrupted EU trade with Iran. Also the establishment of the special purpose company Instex, which should enable an Iranian-European payment transaction independent of the dollar, does not work. It has long been recognized in circles in Brussels that all this is just symbolic politics. Against the power of the US, the EU is powerless – even if the EU countries exceptionally agree in this case.
The EU is also in agreement in the transatlantic trade dispute – but only at first glance. Although Brussels has a strong formal mandate on trade issues and Commissioner Cecilia Malmström has a fairly robust trade policy, secondly, France and Germany have different interests. Paris protects its farmers, Berlin fears for its car industry.
If Trump soon insists on import quotas for EU cars, it will show how far European solidarity goes. The US president calls for an opening of the EU agricultural markets, which Macron strictly rejects. Such liberalization of European agricultural markets would probably be the only way to prevent Trump from imposing 25% punitive tariffs on car imports.
Macron has recently vetoed the specific mandate for negotiating the reduction of industrial tariffs between the EU and the US.
The reason: France exports only a few industrial goods to the United States compared to Germany. In trade matters, as in many areas, national egoism rather than uniform politics applies.
Fatal unanimity principle
After all, there is a realization in Europe's capitals that this cacophony makes the EU incapable of action. Even if Mogherini wanted, she can only do as much as the 28 Member States allow. Foreign policy is still one of the last remaining policy areas in which the unanimity principle applies in decisions. Voices to change that are getting louder and louder: Juncker and Macron demand that, as does Merkel.
Astonishingly, Mogherini himself is not among the advocates. Presumably because she fears that she is unpopular with many Member States. Because in order to introduce qualified majority voting in foreign policy decisions, it requires the approval of all EU members. That they will ever do that is questionable.
EU diplomats from Latvia, Poland and Greece had last expressed negative views. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney also considers unanimity in key foreign policy decisions to be “very important”.
The unanimity principle, however, became clear last February: The EU was unable to make a firm decision in three foreign policy crises: Italy prevented a unified EU position on the topic of Venezuela and the recognition of Juan Guaidó.
Hungary did not want to join in the joint summit declaration with the Arab League. And a joint EU statement on the end of the INF nuclear disarmament treaty was rejected by the six non-NATO members Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Malta and Cyprus. So the EU remained silent again on these eventful days.
Maybe the Foreign Affairs Council could get things moving on 17 June. Then the EU foreign ministers want to discuss the effectiveness of the common foreign policy. Nine EU Member States – including Germany, France, Denmark, Spain and Sweden – have sent an unofficial working document to the rest of the country to serve as the basis for this debate.
In the paper, which is available to the Handelsblatt, they call for a stronger cohesion in foreign policy, a better and more effective coordination with each other. “We have to spend less time coordinating ourselves,” it says.
“If Europe does not act together, it will soon be treated only,” says Maas and speaks of the “curse of unanimity.” The requirement that every EU country can veto foreign policy often leads only to the lowest common denominator and invites foreign powers to split the EU. How important a common denominator will be is shown by the long-term socio-economic perspectives of Europe alone.
The proportion of Europeans in the world's population will drop to just over four percent in 2050. And the proportion of global economic output will fall from the current 14 percent to just nine percent over the same period.
If the “old continent” still wants to be perceived in the struggle between the US and China for world domination, it needs at least a uniform and efficient foreign policy. European sovereignty, as demanded by Macron, is a prerequisite for national sovereignty.
If the Europeans do not understand this at last, in the coming decades they will by no means take a place in the world that would even approximate their own self-image – neither economically nor politically.
More: Europe lives from its diversity. If we want to become more European in the future, we must use our diversity – and draw productivity from it, Eon boss Johannes Teyssen warns in his guest commentary.
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