Within Europe, the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States has been met with a mix of disbelief (surely this did not just happen), hope (surely, he will not last long) and increasing resignation (this is the new normal). Despite public assertions about Europe’s so-called special relationship with the United States, the US commitment to its European partners was fraying long before Trump became president. Trump’s “America First” campaign and unilateral approach to foreign policy do not mark a significant shift in US rhetoric or policy. US skepticism toward international structures, legal regimes (including those governing human rights) and its European partners is both “longstanding and deeply culturally embedded.” [1] Under Trump, such exceptionalism is just more visible and entrenched. It is this worldview that led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with devastating effects still felt in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

In the post-September 11, 2001 landscape, the United States made clear its intent to go it alone—even if that meant operating outside the doctrines of international law and international institutions. While President Barack Obama, to some degree at least, endeavored to re-situate the United States within the international community, Trump has embraced Bush-era doctrines. This approach, combined with a US-Russia alliance and failure to understand the refugee crisis as a global crisis that requires a global plan, has had significant repercussions for Europe, which is keenly aware that the problem extends far beyond Trump. The US Republican Party and the foreign policy establishment, for a variety of reasons, have enabled Trump to work outside supranational controls and agreements. Against this backdrop, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s view that, “the times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over…We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,” captures a change in European attitudes toward the United States. [2]

The public shift in US-European relations suggests that Trump’s election has woken Europe from its slumber—a political awakening that is mapped out in three specific ways. First, as the full horror of right-wing populism plays out across the United States, the advance of Trump-like nationalist political movements in Europe has been halted, at least temporarily, with defeats to far-right movements in France, Austria, Great Britain and the Netherlands. Second, US disengagement from its international responsibilities along with the new Trump alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin comes at a time when European integration is under threat. BREXIT, Great Britain’s own “first” movement, exposed deep divisions between European Union (EU) member states. Somewhat ironically, however, Trump’s election may have provided incentive for EU members to rediscover a common purpose. Third, the Trump administration’s disengagement from the international stage and return to a unilateralist foreign policy, combined with trade protectionism and climate denial, provide opportunities for the EU to develop a coherent foreign policy that, especially for the Middle East, may well produce policies that depart from this current US administration.

There are signs that this departure has already begun. For example, the differing approaches of the EU and the United States to the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—was made clear in the wake of Trump’s October 2017 decision to decertify Iran’s compliance with JCPOA. EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini publicly stated that the EU remained committed to the agreement, citing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certification, on eight different occasions, of Iran’s compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. [3] For Trump, the decision appears to be less about compliance or the specifics of the agreement than about Trump’s worldview—one that is increasingly informed by the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, these are the only two countries to endorse Trump’s actions toward Iran.

The JCPOA is a multilateral agreement signed by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, and cannot be unilaterally abrogated by the United States or any signatory. While the US decision has no legal standing, it may prompt a reconfiguration of alliances—one that could, as German Foreign Secretary Sigmar Gabriel suggests, posit the EU, Russia and China against the United States. It may also shift some diplomatic leverage to the EU. Mohammad Hassan Habibollahzadeh, the Iranian ambassador to Norway, has stated that, “If the EU gives us enough reason to continue with the nuclear agreement, we will continue.” [4] The point was echoed by the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Salehi, who stated that Iran would comply with its obligations even if the United States withdrew, so long as Europe remains party to the agreement.5 Whether the EU can provide enough incentive for Iran to continue to comply with the JCPOA remains to be seen. That said, the unified rebuke by the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) to the US administration’s approach to Iran suggests that Europe may be ready to shed its junior partner status.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a second area where, absent a coherent and viable US approach, the EU may be poised to play a stronger role. Although the United States has long been considered to be the only viable third party that can bring pressure to bear on Israel, its position with regard to Palestine has never been one of neutral arbiter. Trump’s unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—in clear breach of international law and UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions—has only reinforced a view of a US-Israeli alliance. Given the political dynamics within the current US administration and the close working relationship between Trump and the Israeli government, there is no incentive for either side to resume negotiations. While Europe’s engagement on Palestine has been at best tentative, within the European public sphere there long has been support for a more equitable and less Israeli-leaning approach. The EU could use the current diplomatic vacuum, and its leverage with both Israel and the Palestinians, to push the two parties toward a deal.

Europe has close economic ties with Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Roughly one quarter of Israeli goods are exported to EU member states.6 Israel also participates in a range of EU programs, including the Horizon 2020 scientific research program. On the Palestinian side, the EU provided €170 million (around $204 million) to the PA in 2016, which accounted for approximately 20 percent of all external support for the budget. Additionally, EU member states, especially Great Britain and France, contribute significant sums independently. The EU and the PA signed an Interim Association Agreement on Trade and Cooperation in 1997, which provides for trade between the EU and PA.

To date, however, the EU has made only limited use of its economic pressure points—through differentiation, applying different policies in the Occupied Territories from those in Israel proper. This approach has had minimal success. The 2015 EU guidelines that call for differential labeling of agricultural produce from Israeli settlements, and a prohibition of entities operating in the settlements from accessing Horizon 2020 funds, have only been implemented by a handful of member states. Moreover, settlements make up less than 4 percent of Israel’s economy.7 Given the number of ways in which Europe connects with Israel economically, and Europe’s ability to exercise diplomatic pressure internationally, much more could be done to put pressure on Israel. For example, the EU could pressure member states to implement the 2015 guidelines fully and consistently. The EU could also extend these measures to the financial sector—a recommendation made by the EU Heads of Mission in a 2012 report and one likely to have more substantial consequences.

On the Palestinian side, the Interim Association Agreement has not resulted in significant trade with the PA. In the short term, the EU and EEA countries could work to improve trade with the PA. In the medium to long term, European states could also provide increased financial and technical support to foster economic development in both the West Bank and Gaza. Improving trade and economic ties would make an independent Palestinian entity—either statehood or something in between—more viable. This additional support may be necessary should Trump follow through on his threat to withdraw all future US aid payments to the Palestinians.

It remains to be seen whether Europe can independently play a more constructive role in foreign policy—not just on Iran and Palestine, but throughout the region. What is clear is that the US retreat from the international arena leaves a leadership gap that the EU, its member states and others (including China) have the potential to fill. If the EU is to be successful in assuming this new role, however, it must reimagine a foreign policy agenda that recognizes that safeguarding European interests is inextricably linked to respecting fundamental human values and legal norms, both inside and outside its borders. Adopting this approach would indeed be a significant departure from current US policies, but this transatlantic divorce is long overdue.


[1] Ruth Jamieson and Kieran McEvoy, “State Crime by Proxy and Juridical Othering,” The British Journal of Criminology 45/4 (July 2005) p. 519.
[2] “Germany Steps up Attack on Trump for ‘Weakening’ the West,” The Guardian, May 30, 2017.
[3] “Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini following the Ministerial Meeting of the E3/EU + 3 and Iran,” September 9, 2017, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/32546/remarks-….
[4] Dagbladet, Norway, October 19, 2017.
[5] “Our Partners Have More To Lose Than We Do,” Der Spiegel, September 8, 2017.
[6] “Exports of Goods by Industry and Country, 2015,” Bureau of Statistics (Israel), July 27, 2016.
[7] “Study on the Geographical Coverage of Israeli Data,” OECD, January 31, 2012 and “Fact Sheet,” EEAS, November 11, 2015.

How to cite this article:

Kathleen Cavanaugh "Europe Dispatch," Middle East Report 283 (Summer 2017).

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