Note: The following is an edited translation of a commentary from the Chinese-language "Commentaries on International Affairs."
As a Chinese idiom goes, the weather in June is like the face of a child, both of which change quickly without any clue. The relationship between the United States and the European Union, transatlantic allies, is now becoming uncertain and volatile. During a meeting at the end of July in the White House, US President Donald Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced that they would launch a new phase of close friendship and strong trade. In August, the two sides began to blame each other and openly clamor. This has put the US-EU relationship into a difficult situation.
The trigger for the tensions is the situation with Iran. Following Donald Trump's announcement that the US would be pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the US government on August 7th restarted sanctions on a series of non-energy fields such as Iran's finances, automobiles, metals and minerals, and plans to impose the second round of sanctions on sectors such as Iran's energy and shipping sectors as of November 5th. The US State Department established the Iran Action Group on August 16th to implement specific sanctions against Iran. Brian Hook, head of the group and director of policy planning at the US State Department, has warned that various countries should be reducing oil imports from Iran to zero by November 4th or face sanctions by the United States.
This is the second time that the United States has adopted unilateral sanctions and "long arm jurisdiction" measures in accordance with domestic law intended to exert maximum pressure on Iran and force it to make concessions.
To this end, the United States wants to block countries from having normal transactions with Iran, including its own allies. The EU maintains close ties with Iran, as well as Russia, in areas including economic development and energy. The European Union has already been taking hits as a result of multiple US sanctions against Russia. Now, the US is imposing sanctions on Iran and threatening to double down. If Iran is forced to take risks and close the Strait of Hormuz, EU energy security will face a major threat.
This is compelling the EU to hit back against the US:
-- In response to the US restarting sanctions against Iran, the EU has updated its laws and regulations to ensure that EU companies involved do not need to comply with the US Sanctions Act and receive compensation.
-- On August 23, the EU announced that it would provide 18 million euros in aid to Iran to support Iran's economic and social development, offset the negative impact of US sanctions on Iran, and save the Iran nuclear deal. As part of the 50 million euro package for Iran, 18 million euros, although not much money, has broader implications than the amount of money itself.
At the same time, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote in the German daily Handelsblatt that the EU should "strengthen European autonomy by creating payment channels that are independent of the United States," emphasizing that "Europe should not allow the US to act over our heads and at our expense." He has also called for a "balanced partnership" with the US, in which Europe would fill gaps in the world left by the American withdrawal. He said Europe must "form a counterweight when the US crosses red lines."
Obviously, in the face of the White House's efforts to impose sanctions on other countries in order to fit Trump's "America First" policy, the EU appears to be fed up.
In fact, the EU's dissatisfaction goes beyond the United States' unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Since Trump took office, his "America First" policy and other unilateral actions have led to an expanding divide between the US and EU in areas such as trade policy, NATO's collective security, European integration, refugee and immigration policies and global governance. The two sides have often been openly confronting one another in the media.
Trump continues to be critical of EU countries which he believes are not paying their fair share for NATO. As part of his rhetoric, Trump has said "The European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States"; "NATO is as bad as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). It's much too costly for the U.S."; "I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade." The US President has also publicly praised the UK's "Brexit" and has encouraged other countries to follow the example of Britain. European Council President Donald Tusk has suggested that "with friends like Trump, who needs enemies?" Tusk has also emphasized that the EU must prepare "for worst-case scenarios." To that end, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two sides confirmed that they will continue to promote the "North Stream 2" natural gas pipeline project that has been repeatedly bombarded verbally by Trump. Certain pundits in Germany have suggested Trump can be thanked for bringing Germany and Russia closer together.
The United States and its European allies have maintained a transatlantic alliance for nearly 70 years. Through this history, the two sides have traditionally lauded their shared values. But today, the US government judges international relations with zero-sum thinking, does not respect the opinions of its European allies, ignores EU interests, and is condescending and arrogant. This kind of nonreciprocal and unequal approach is causing a gap between the US and the EU that threatens to grow wider and wider.
Ahead of a NATO summit in mid-July in Brussels, and in the face of Trump's accusations against the EU, European Council President Donald Tusk took the opportunity to go on the offensive. "Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don't have that many," said Tusk. Now, taking the first step toward an independent and courageous counterattack, the EU has given 18 million euros in aid to Iran, dismissing US complaints that the EU is sending "the wrong message at the wrong time." The gulf between the US and the EU is growing. The transatlantic alliance is turbulent. And if this continues, the United States, which appears addicted to sanctions to get its way, may just end up losing all its allies and find itself politically isolated.