Athens, Greece – US-Iranian tensions have revived concerns over the European Union‘s difficulty in speaking with authority on the world stage, according to analysts.
“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 2003 Gulf War. “If anything, there is less.”
In the run-up to European Parliament elections this month, Iran threatened to depart from a deal agreed to in 2015 with US President Barack Obama, which lifted trade sanctions against Tehran in return for a scaling down of its nuclear programme.
Even though President Donald Trump last year pulled the US out of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the EU still supports it and has refused to enforce new sanctions.
When Tehran announced it would partially withdraw from the deal, however, Washington proved more dynamic than Brussels, evacuating non-essential staff from its embassy in Baghdad. In the days before Iran’s announcement, the US said it was sending an aircraft carrier group in the Gulf. The world braced for a military show of force.
The United States has been able to weaponise its economic clout, while the EU has not. The EU attempted to bypass sanctions by creating a payments channel named Instex – short for Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges. It was 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, amid fears that 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 unlocked a new market of 80 million people for European agricultural products, pharmaceuticals, machinery, capital and services. Iran purchased 120 aircraft from EU companies in deals worth tens of billions of dollars. Those aircraft cannot now be delivered.
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.
“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 an 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 the 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 rivalries.
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 coastguard. 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 into its role as second violinist.