Donald Trump’s ability to to challenging long standing and in many cases mouldy shibboleths of the post-Cold War European political consensus is highly effective. It seems as though every time Trump threatens new tariffs on European imports, sanctions on European companies for dealing with Iran and requests for more money from NATO while subtly indicating he has lost enthusiasm for the 1940s era alliance, that European leaders respond with a barrage of robust rhetoric.
Trump has successfully triggered German leaders to listen to their own business community who want freer trading arrangements with China and he has also frequently triggered the EU’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini to offer robust defences of the EU’s position that it will allegedly not flinch from upholding the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) even while Trump threatens sanctions against EU based companies who continue to transact with Iran.
While a recent meeting between Angela Merkel and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang did not lead to the breakthrough that many forward thinking Europeans had hoped for, recent news that Air France and British Airways will suspend all flights to Iran makes it clear that in spite of the seemingly independent rhetoric, European political and business leaders are still listening to Trump and consequently upholding the American way in Europe.
Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron said the following,
“Europe can no longer rely on the US to provide its security. It is up to us today to take our responsibilities and guarantee our own security, and thus have European sovereignty. We have to draw all necessary conclusions from the end of the Cold War. This amplified European sovereignty requires reviewing the architecture of European security and defence system, by starting a new dialogue on cybersecurity issues, chemical weapons, conventional weapons, territorial conflicts, space security, the protection of polar regions, and particularly doing it in cooperation with Russia.
I call for us to start considering these issues with our partners in the broadest sense of the word, that is, with Russia”.
This might sound like music to the ears of European farmers who have lost the once lucrative Russian export market as well as those who acknowledge that the present European mentality of considering Russia a “threat” is both ridiculous and dangerous.
But what good is European rhetoric about China, Iran or Russia if it is never followed up by concrete action steps? The Hellenic story teller Aesop once told of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. According to the story, a young boy constantly frightens those in his village by claiming a hungry wolf is on the prowl when no such thing was true. Then when a hungry wolf was on the prowl and he sounded an alarm, the boy was ignored based on the precedent of his previous lies. As a result the wolf ate all of his sheep.
When European leaders talk boldly about opening trading avenues to China, defending economic ties with Iran and reaching a diplomatic and military rapprochement with Russia, they are not so much crying wolf as they are ‘crying sheep’. They are indicating that something placid will replace something counter-productive and alarming, but like the boy from Aesop’s fable whose cries were not based on reality, it is becoming increasingly clear that the more European leaders talk – the less they do.
Soviet leader Lenin often derided the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848, a supposed revolutionary chamber as nothing but a “talking shop”. Increasingly the European Union that was supposed to give European countries a strong and independent voice is increasingly like an expensive talking shop that rarely breaks with Washington’s policies in spite of occasional rhetoric which challenges the Atlanticist status-quo.
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are not the reincarnation of Charles de Gaulle and Willy Brandt much though they like to pretend they are whenever Donald Trump’s rhetoric ruffles their feathers. Thus, no one in China, Iran or Russia should deceive themselves by taking Europe’s rhetoric at face value. Ironically, Europe treats the wider multipolar world with the same contempt with which the current British leadership treats the rest of Europe. During the exhaustive Brexit talks, Britain has offered deal after deal wherein London seeks all of the benefits of EU membership without the responsibility that such benefits necessarily entail. Consequently, the EU leadership continually rejects such lopsided deals. Likewise, the EU’s attitude towards Russia and China tends to operate on the same basis. It’s as if Europe will only deal with Asian partners if they adopt European characteristics which is simply never going to happen.
Europe needs a reality check in a big way. Until this happens, hopeful rhetoric will remain little more than “letters I’ve written, never meaning to send” to quote Justin Hayward of the quintessentially European band Moody Blues.