EU vs US: Can Brussels Stand Up to American Bullying?

Europe is taking off its gloves and lashing out at the US president in unusually strong language, and, in this case, the EU has the support of its population. The question is can the EU muster the muscle to face down an aggressive US?

With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Donald Tusk, European Council President, May 16.

But can you walk the walk?

So, is Europe finally growing a pair or is this a bluff? Until now, the EU has only talked the talk but has taken no concrete action to resist Trump. Hundreds of European companies stand to lose if Washington imposes sanctions on them for doing business in Iran. Conservatives from John Bolton to The New Republic say Europe hasn’t got the balls, nor the means, to resist.

European leaders say they are ready to take on the United States if Trump tries to sanction companies for doing business in Iran. The EU, led by France and Germany, have strongly criticized the American president for pulling out of the Iran deal.

Speaking in Bulgaria on May 16, Tusk noted that Trump had become “an unreliable partner” who acts with “capricious assertiveness.” He referred to the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, the tariffs threats on aluminum and steel and rhetoric over NATO.

A poll released on May 19 shows that 82% of the Germans don’t believe the US is a reliable partner. While only 14% trust the US, a full 36% see Russia as a reliable partner: more than twice as many as the US.

The new Italian coalition say they will end sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine, further weakening the US hand. Merkel was in Sochi May 18 to discuss Iran and Syria with the Russian president. The US is more and more out of the picture.

A united Europe militarizing

Despite growing discontent within the EU and differences on the road ahead, most notably over the Euro, EU federation, and immigration, Europeans are as united as they have ever been to resist Trump if he tries to sanction European companies doing business in Iran.

But true to form, the French are blowing hot and cold. President Macron, ruling out a trade war with the US said: “We’re not going to choose one camp over another.”  At the same time he said he wants to provide guarantees to all businesses that want to stay in Iran. So, it is the one, or the other?

The new US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, angered Berlin last week with his first tweet calling on German companies to “wind-down their activities in Iran immediately.” The French giant, Total, said they would stop their multibillion dollar deal with Iran unless it is granted a waiver by the US.

Grenell, echoing Trump’s accusations Germany is not doing enough for NATO, also called on Germany to increase its defense spending to two percent of GDP. Germany says it will increase defense spending to 1.5% by 2025.

Lets be clear: if Germany spent two percent of its GDP on defense, it would be spending more than Russia spends on defense. Last year, Germany spent 37 billion euros, 1.28% of GDP, on defense. Germany would have to spend $70 billion on defense to reach the two percent level which is above the estimated 2014 Russian budget of $69 billion. 

France, whose debt is 100% of GDP, is already spending too much on defense: 2.3% of GDP or around $58 billion. The French are pushing for a greater independent European military force based on the model of the Franco-German Brigade and more Europeans are hearing the call. Trump’s actions and tough talk seem to be making the US less influent in European affairs.

Also, many Europeans point out that much of America’s defense spending is on non defense expenditures such as the Veterans Administration and flying and housing military dependents around the world. (Note: the VA has its own budget independent of the Pentagon’s)

Siding with Russia in the Middle East

Europe is also distancing itself from the US in the Middle East. Europeans oppose Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem in contravention of UN Resolutions. Germany, France and the EU condemned, in the strongest terms, Israel’s massacre of unarmed Palestinian protesters while Trump turned a blind eye. Only four of the 28 EU member states attended the embassy inauguration.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said: “Israel must respect the right to peaceful protest” after Monday’s mass shootings. Both Ireland and Holland condemned the embassy move after the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania blocked the 28 EU members from publishing a joint statement.

During her Sochi visit May 18, Merkel discussed Syrian reconstruction with Putin; a sign both see a Syrian victory over US backed rebels as imminent.

Germany has another reason for rapprochement with Russia: the Nord-stream 2 gas pipeline. Accusing Trump of trying to sabotage the project “to ensure the sale of American liquefied gas to the European market,”  President Vladimir Putin promised “we will fight for it.” The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in more diplomatic tones, also supported the project saying Berlin has “a difference of opinions” with Washington.

The June 28 EU Summit will certainly be devoted to how Europe can resist the US. The UK may have to leave the EU without a Brixit deal. But, even if Europe is forced to throw in the towel on trade with Iran, Trump has succeeded in bringing Europeans closer together.