How US Pressure Is Hardening EU Foreign Policy, For Now

The United States of America has long played a guiding role in the EU’s history. It laid the foundations for increasing inter-European commerce and integration with the Marshall Plan, which aside from providing war-torn nations with billions in aid, sought to reduce trade barriers by encouraging membership in the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation, an early precursor to the EU itself.

For the past few years, however, it would seem that the European Union and the United States have been drifting apart, not least because of the installation of a protectionist and sometimes aggressive president in the White House, who reportedly wants to “wipe out” the EU. While true in some respects, this impression is far from containing the whole truth. Because for several months now, the EU has been hardening its foreign policy in response to American diplomatic pressure, belying those who think it should cultivate a more independent approach to global affairs.

On September 27, the EU imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, applying travel bans and asset freezes to seven individuals close to President Nicolas Maduro. This announcement came several weeks and months after a course of sustained pressure from the US, which has ramped up its own sanctions on Venezuela recently to include blocks on Venezuelan oil exports.

In its announcement of new sanctions, the EU also threatened to expand its actions further. “The EU confirms its readiness to work on further targeted measures to foster such a negotiated transition,” wrote the European Council’s HR/VP Federica Mogherini, referring to the EU’s demand that Venezuela hold new presidential elections and reinstitute “public powers.”

Given that international observers and researchers have described the Venezuelan electoral system as “far more secure and fraud-proof than practically any other voting system in the world,” this threat of even further sanctions if new elections aren’t held is certainly an assertive, if not aggressive one. Not only that, but it’s in keeping with similar moves the EU has made on the world stage in recent months, which have also arisen in part from American pressure.

In March, the EU similarly joined the United States in applying new sanctions to Russia, which were imposed in response to November’s naval standoff in the Sea of Azov between Russian and Ukrainian naval vessels. As with the EU’s latest Venezuelan sanctions, these followed months of pressure from the US (and also Ukraine), with the chair of the Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee, Leonid Slutsky, going so far as to place the blame specifically on American influence.

“The political consensus of EU states on new sanctions against Russia was obviously influenced by the US,” he told the Russian News Agency TASS. “It is especially sad that the EU, despite flashes of common sense, once again engages in policies that are not independent and remains under US influence. In the end, Brussels sacrifices its own interests for the sake of Euro-Atlantic solidarity.”

Something similar could be said about the EU’s evolving stance towards Iran, another of America’s favourite enemies. At the end of September, the EU threatened Iran with withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was signed in 2015 and which removed nuclear-related sanctions against Iran in exchange for the latter ceasing its nuclear programme. The EU has privately warned Tehran that it will reinstate its former sanctions in November if Iran proceeds with its threats to renege on certain terms of the JCPOA.

Once again, the EU’s threats come after not only the United States’ withdrawal from the deal, but also after the USA had publicly pressed Europe to back America’s hard-line. “We are confident that the UK, France and Germany – indeed, all civilized nations – will take decisive actions to stop Iran’s nuclear extortion,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in early September, when he visited Brussels.

Such a pattern of US-imitation must be worrying for any EU citizen who wants the Union to forge its own independent path in global affairs. That said, while the EU is increasingly hardening certain parts of its foreign policy in response to American pressure, it’s likely that this is being done for pragmatic and economic reasons, rather than because EU leaders feel some strong or deep affinity towards the US and its current administration’s values.

For instance, the EU is currently being subjected to tariffs on a range of goods it exports to America, including on aluminium and steel, as well as incoming tariffs on aircrafts, cars, and luxury goods. By increasingly following Washington’s example, the EU may be hoping that it softens the USA’s stance on trade, as it tried to do at August’s G7 summit in France.

At the same time, the EU also appreciates that, despite rifts, it still needs to have a close relationship with the US for security reasons, especially with the uncertainties created by the Middle East and by an unpredictable Russia. Nonetheless, those who want a more independent EU may take heart from the fact that it has begun nurturing a longer-term view of its future foreign policy. And as nebulous plans for an EU army suggest, its recent move towards Washington on international matters may only be a short-term expediency.