Its time for Europe to stand up to Donald Trump. The U.S. president is a bully, and like any other bully, he will keep trying to push European leaders around — unless they find the courage to push back.
It has taken a while to get here. Europes plan A was denial: Trump is not America, European policymakers insisted. He is constrained by the adults in the room.
When the adults in the room got fired, or sidelined, they moved on to plan B, appeasement. Trump has a point on Irans regional behavior and ballistic missiles and on European underinvestment in NATO — these do need fixing.
But Trumps recent actions — the decision to impose tariffs on his biggest trading partners, his disregard for international agreements and his outburst at the G7 — make clear that the U.S. president sees Europes eagerness to smooth the waters as a weakness.
As a committed Atlanticist, it pains me to admit that its time for Europe to turn to Plan C: Fight back.
If Trump wants to move to a more transactional relationship, the EU should also withdraw its cooperation in areas that will affect American interests directly.
There will likely be at least three — and maybe even seven — more years of Trump. If European governments keep rolling over, the U.S. president will carry on driving a wrecking ball through the international system. By the time he leaves office, there may not be much of it left.
It is true that America will remain Europes closest partner in the world and that talk of complete “strategic autonomy” is empty. But in the long run, both sides will benefit from a more balanced relationship.
The European Union urgently needs to find and exploit whatever leverage it has to make sure the administration takes its concerns seriously. It has long been prepared to do this on trade issues, but that approach now needs to be extended to other policy areas.
One immediate challenge is to stop appeasing the U.S. administration when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal. If European powers cant protect an international agreement they initiated and negotiated, they will become completely subject to Washingtons political mood swings.
Skeptics will say its highly unlikely the EU will risk putting itself on a collision course with Washington.
Trumps decision to pull out of the agreement is one thing, but his determination to impose secondary sanctions on European companies for respecting an international agreement is grotesque. If it is allowed to stand, Europeans will find it hard to make sovereign decisions.
Frances finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, has laid out a credible plan that involves legal protection from U.S. sanctions for companies doing business in Iran, compensation for their losses through some sort of insurance scheme, and financing investment in Iran via central banks and the European Investment Bank to avoid dollar transactions. Europeans could also help develop a payment system that allows Iran to sell its oil and gas in euros.
If push comes to shove and the U.S. refuses to give exemptions and carve-outs for European companies, the EU should consider taking action against the many U.S. companies operating in Europe.
If Trump wants to move to a more transactional relationship, the EU should also withdraw its cooperation in areas that will affect American interests directly. For example, the U.S. has asked the British government to send 400 more troops to Afghanistan to support the fight there. It would be perfectly reasonable for the Brits to respond to that demand by making it conditional on getting waivers for European companies trade with the Islamic Republic.
Skeptics will say its highly unlikely the EU will risk putting itself on a collision course with Washington. Europeans still heavily depend on the U.S. when it comes to security, and many of the Continents leaders are attached to a status quo that allows them to spend very little on defense and avoid getting sucked into intractable conflicts. Faced with a choice between sovereignty and free-riding, they prefer the path of less resistance.
This was an understandable choice when the EU and U.S. were engaged in a joint Western project to build a liberal world order. There may have been bitter divisions — such as over the invasion of Iraq — but they were essentially tactical. Today, there is a major strategic clash between an EU that has made a big bet on multilateralism and a U.S. president who believes the global liberal order was designed to undermine America.
With Trump in charge of American foreign policy, a blind, unconditional reliance on the transatlantic alliance will only bring the jungle closer. In order to have a strong transatlantic alliance, the EU will need to develop the tools to think for itself and stand up for its own interests and the international order that underpins them.
If we dont act now, others will dictate our interests for us — and they wont even have the courtesy to tell us before they blow everything up.
Mark Leonard is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century” (Fourth Estate, 2005).
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