All Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson’s entreaties and demonstrations of affection to President Donald Trump were utterly pointless. He responded by humiliating them. Now, he threatens trade and financial reprisals if they fail to break the deal their countries made with Iran three years ago. Trump has reversed the US’s position, and its allies must fall into line. Seen from Washington, the UK, France and Germany are unimportant, or anyway far less important than Saudi Arabia or Israel.
In Les Chemins de la liberté (The Roads to Freedom), Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: ‘When a man admits his guilt, you always feel like hitting him, to smash what little dignity he has left.’ That holds true for countries, including those of the European Union. Macron says he refuses to talk ‘with a gun to [his] head]’, while Merkel finds it unfortunate that Trump has made things ‘even more difficult’ in the Middle East. Yet neither seems able to respond with anything but whining. Europe’s major business corporations feel obliged to comply with the White House, since even sending an email via a server in the US or using dollars in a transaction with Iran will make them liable to enormous fines (see Trump’s Iranian diktat, in this issue).
No sooner had Trump announced his decision than Total, formerly Compagnie Française des Pétroles, cancelled plans to invest in Iran. At that same moment, Macron, while pretending to look for a way to maintain the agreement, admitted: ‘I would like to be very clear: we are not going to impose sanctions or counter-sanctions on American companies … And we are not going to force [French] companies to stay [in Iran]. That’s the reality of business. The president of France is not the CEO of Total’ (1).The latter, it seems, takes his orders from the White House.
Our weary political commentators have drawn from this episode the lesson that the EU needs to become stronger (2). But the bigger and more institutionalised it gets, the less it is able to refuse orders from the US. In 1980 the nine members of the European Economic Community took a position on the Middle East, recognisingthe national aspirations of the Palestinian people; on 14 May this year, four member states, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania, sent representatives to the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, while the Israeli army was killing civilians in Gaza; and lest anyone forget, in 2003, 15 of the EU’s current 28 members took part in the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The EU is constantly toughening its convergence criteria but, as the fall-out of Trump’s decision made clear, always forgets one: the need for its members to be independent and sovereign.