Irish Times view on EU-US relations

European Council president Donald Tusk raises fundamental questions about the future

 

“With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Donald Tusk’s brutally frank question to European Union leaders at their summit in Sofia last week referred to Donald Trump, president of the United States.

Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, threat of a transatlantic trade war, moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and rejection of the Paris climate agreement amount to a capricious unpredictability on policies so central to European values that Washington can no longer be relied on as an ally, Tusk believes. His statement as president of the European Council is a watershed moment in EU-US relations, raising fundamental questions about their future.

Tusk went on to draw clear conclusions about the need for much greater European self-reliance in response to this US unpredictability: “I have no doubt that in the new global game, Europe will be either one of the major players, or a pawn. This is the only real alternative. In order to be the subject and not the object of global politics, Europe must be united economically, politically and also militarily, like never before. To put it simply: either we are together, or we will not be at all.” His remarks underline the challenge for the EU’s leaders as they choose how to deal with each of these major issues and for citizens and voters who must decide at national and European levels how appropriate and acceptable these responses are.

While some EU leaders want to hold as close as they can to the US, most agree that Trump’s policies cut right across European commitments to multilateral and legal approaches to policy-making on Iran, trade, climate and Middle East politics. Trump’s unilateral assertion of US interests and power builds on longer term changes in American policy that question whether they will be reversed easily.

European leaders have to deal realistically with this balance of forces. On Iran and trade they want to widen negotiating agendas with the US so as to make it easier to find compromises. Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional activism would be joined to those multilateral talks, just as reciprocal tariffs, liquefied natural gas or product safety rules would be linked to the trade ones dealing with aluminium and steel. In each of these cases the brute facts of US power nonetheless come into play. Companies like Total and Maersk are forced to withdraw from the Iranian market in response to US extraterritorial sanctions while the dollar’s reserve currency role is another source of US leverage against those who refuse to accept them.

That puts the EU in a weaker position unless and until its leaders heed Tusk’s advice to become more self-reliant. For Ireland and all member-states that poses huge questions about how to achieve the greater unity he thinks is essential.

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