EU Nations Not US Colonies, Need More Autonomy: Italian Analyst

EU Nations Not US Colonies, Need More Autonomy: Italian Analyst

TEHRAN (Tasnim) – A senior fellow with the Mediterranean and Middle East Program of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) rejected the idea that European states are dependent on Washington, saying that they are not “colonies of the US” but need more autonomy in the areas of economy and security.

“European states are not colonies of the US and EU countries have many times disagreed with US policy, as for instance happened in the 2003 Iraq war or even in the 2011 Libya intervention. What Europe needs is more autonomous and independent capabilities, particularly in the security and economic domains, and some movement is indeed happening in this domain if we consider PESCO and the European Defence Fund for example,” Andrea Dessi told Tasnim.

Andrea Dessi is a senior fellow within IAI’s Mediterranean and Middle East program and Editorial Director of IAI’s English-language series IAI Commentaries. Andrea is also a Non-Resident Scholar at the Strategic Studies Implementation and Research Centre, Başkent University, Ankara. He has worked extensively on US and European foreign policy towards the Middle East with a particular focus on the diplomatic and military history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, US policy towards Israel and Washington’s alliance frameworks in the Middle East. His research interests include security studies, the geopolitics of the Middle East and the intersection between global and regional trends and developments. Andrea holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) with a thesis on the US-Israel relationship during the 1980s. He has worked with IAI since 2011 and has contributed to a number of EU-funded projects and research tasks.

Following is the full text of the interview:

Tasnim: In a recent speech, French President Emanuel Macron proposed a bleak vision of Europe’s future and its possible disappearance. Later, in an interview with The Economics, he explained, “I’m trying to face the facts. Personally, I think Europe is a miracle. This continent has the greatest geographical concentration of cultural and linguistic diversity. Which explains why, for almost two millennia, Europe was rocked by constant civil wars.” Do you believe so?

Dessi: The European Union does represent the foremost example of a union of cultures, identities and values for its citizens. In some respects, the EU does represent a “miracle”, due to the very long history of conflict and division that has existed on this continent. The fact that these were gradually overcome through a peaceful process of multilateral dialogue and the pooling of capabilities, beginning from the economic domain and those strategic resources – coal and steel – that had been used to make war can be described as a ‘miracle’. At the very least, it should serve as a reminder of how individuals and strong and committed leadership can play a positive role in international politics, helping to overcome old rivalries or nationalist mistrust between states and promote ambitious ideas that may seem completely unachievable in contemporary times.

I would not agree that cultural and linguistic diversity is what led Europe to be rocked by civil wars for two millennia, diversity is not (or should not be) synonymous with conflict, whether this be in Europe or the Middle East. Instead, what led to so many wars and conflicts was the prevalence of zero-sum rivalries between political and economic elites in the different national contexts and the quest for power and influence amongst each other, often through alliances with other states who shared a common adversary. This is also what is happening in the Middle East. Ideology, promoted by these elites played a very important role, enhancing the fragmentation of the European continent, which benefitted those same elites in power while helping promote stereotypes or mistrust of ‘the other’ across the continent. It is that allowed elites to weaponize identity and culture and use them for their own narrow and nationalist interests, to consolidate power and deflect opposition to foreign enemies, real of imagined.

The miracle of the European Union project – and it is important to underscore that this is a man-made project, so by definition, it is both imperfect and open to improvement as well as still a work in progress – was precisely the ability to overcome old ideological, political and economic divisions. Few would disagree that this project has made incredible progress – lifting the living standards and rights enjoyed by European citizens to what are arguably the highest standards in modern times. Of course, there are problems and shortcomings, but to look back at where Europe stood in the 1920s or 1930s and 40s and where we are today this is nothing short of a success story. However, as with any man-made project, what has been built can also be destroyed. When Macron speaks of the possible disappearance of the EU, this is what he means. The possibility and risk are no doubt there. The return of old nationalisms and populism, mixed with global trends in the US and in the east, are complicating the European experiment, even threatening its very foundations. This is what Macron means when he says he is “trying to face the facts”. The issue today is what we propose to do about these facts and how Europe can react to protect its interests and experiment.

Tasnim: Elsewhere in the interview, Macron referred to a shift in the US policy in the past years, saying, “Moreover, Europe was basically built to be the Americans’ junior partner. That was what lay behind the Marshall Plan from the beginning. And this went hand in hand with a benevolent United States, acting as the ultimate guarantor of a system and of a balance of values, based on the preservation of world peace and the domination of Western values. There was a price to pay for that, which was NATO and support to the European Union. But their position has shifted over the past 10 years, and it hasn’t only been the Trump administration. You have to understand what is happening deep down in American policy-making. It’s the idea put forward by President Obama: ‘I am a Pacific president’.” Whats are your thoughts on this?

Dessi: There is some truth this second quote from Macron’s interview with The Economist. However, as with many things Macron (says), there is also some exaggeration and unfortunate choice of words in my mind. After having destroyed itself in two world wars, Europe was re-built, also thanks to the Marshall Plan, on the basis of a US model and that is when the transatlantic alliance between Europe and the US was born. Europe was the junior partner because of its need for reconstruction, but the Marshall Plan was not implemented to keep Europe weak and divided compared to the US, much the opposite. Successive US administrations have long been calling on Europe to do more to promote its interests or spend more to contribute to NATO and European defense. The US has also benefitted enormously from Europe’s reconstruction and the establishment of the EU, as has Europe benefitted from the US’s security umbrella. I would not describe NATO as “a price to pay” on the side of Europe, I think that is a very unfortunate choice of words, particularly in light of the traditionally low contributions of EU states to NATO. The US’s shift to look east is a natural evolution of world affairs, this simply means that Europe will be forced to shoulder more strategic and economic burdens in its neighborhood, which is also a natural evolution of world affairs. The real question is if Europe will be able to do this, but it is too easy to complain about the US for its shifting focus to Asia and it is incorrect to say the US does not want to see a strong Europe. If anything the US’s Asia pivot is pushing Europe to get its act together. If Europe wants to be a global player and balance the US, Russia, China, and others, then we need to look within Europe to make changes, not complain about the US.

Tasnim: The French president further said the ties between Europe and the US have loosened. He said, “The United States remains our major ally, we need them, we are close and we share the same values. I care a lot about this relationship and have invested a great deal in it with President Trump. But we find ourselves for the first time with an American president who doesn’t share our idea of the European project, and American policy is diverging from this project.” Do you believe so? If yes, what has put a serious strain on ties between the US and its European allies?

Dessi: Again, there is some truth to what Macron says in terms of a growing divergence between the US and Europe. However, I do not think it is correct to say the US (beyond Trump) does not share “our idea of the European project”. First of all, there are some in Europe who do not share Macron’s view of the European project, and in the US there is also some debate and different points of view. If the European project stands for multilateralism and the rules-based order, and support for the UN, clearly there is some strain in the relationship with Trump who despises multilateralism and the UN due to it potentially placing limits on US-independent action or policy. But it is more complex than that, as even within Europe there are certain similar trends. I think the important point to highlight from this quote is that the US will remain “our major ally”. That is the starting point, and the US and Europe will continue to largely cooperate policy looking to the future. There is just no other option in the short to medium term. In terms of the precise drivers for this present Transatlantic “strategic drift” it is clearly three issues: Iran and the Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and imposition of primary and secondary sanctions in the face of EU protests and interests; Trump’s unilateralism on Israel-Palestine, with the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights and backtracking on the two-state framework being the most important and consequential actions in this domain; and the recent decision to pull US troops out of North-Eastern Syria (even if now it seems some will remain) without coordinating with European allies. These three issues, combined with the US’s imposition of tariffs on EU products and the broader trade issues between the US and Europe, have created the strain in the Transatlantic relationship. The consequence is a growing realization in Europe, and certainly in France and Germany, about the need for Europe to develop more autonomous and independent policies from the US, particularly when it comes to protecting security and commercial interests.

Tasnim: In another part of the interview, Macron discussed ways to build “European sovereignty” and also referred to the “brain death of NATO”. He said, "... things are changing; we need to keep explaining this. There is a deep current of thought that was structured in the period between 1990 and 2000 around the idea of the ‘end of history’, of a limitless expansion of democracy, of the triumph of the West as a universal value system. That was the accepted truth at the time, until the 2000s, when a series of shocks demonstrated that it wasn’t actually so true. So I think the first thing to do is to regain military sovereignty. I pushed European defense issues to the forefront as soon as I took office, at the European level, at the Franco-German level.” Can you please explain on “European sovereignty” and the “brain death of NATO” mentioned by Macron?

Dessi: This concept of European sovereignty is precisely the reaction to the above point on a growing divergence in policy and praxis between the US and Europe. However, again, I do not think that the word “sovereignty” is correct here. I think the better way to frame this is “European autonomy” or “European independence”, sovereignty is too strong a word and also incorrect, as European states do retain sovereignty over their national defense policies and actions. European states are not colonies of the US and EU countries have many times disagreed with US policy, as for instance happened in the 2003 Iraq war or even in the 2011 Libya intervention. What Europe needs is more autonomous and independent capabilities, particularly in the security and economic domains, and some movement is indeed happening in this domain if we consider PESCO and the European Defence Fund for example. This, however, does not mean that we are moving beyond NATO. NATO will remain and retains its importance. A stronger and more autonomous EU in the military domain would not weaken NATO but should be complementary with NATO, while at the same time providing capabilities for independent action if and when there is a need. I think Macron’s statement on the “brain death of NATO” is meant more as a warning and a means to spark debate than a true reflection of what France or Macron believes. A debate has no doubt followed from his interview and I think this in itself is a positive development.

Ideally, what I believe Macron would like to see happen is a more balanced transatlantic relationship and a more balanced NATO. By balanced I mean that the EU also increases its responsibilities in defining and directing policy, not simply following the US lead. The only way to create this balance or re-adjustment is for Europe to enhance its capabilities, using these to enhance EU leverage and influence over NATO decisions and US foreign and military policy in the EU’s neighborhood. This is not opposed by the US, which has long pushed for Europe to increase its share of responsibilities, but there is some difference between increasing capabilities and financial commitments and then translating this new leverage into political weight and influence over transatlantic policy decisions and NATO. With the US re-prioritizing Asia, it will necessarily fall to Europe to shoulder more of a burden in its near abroad, and this includes the Middle East and North Africa as well as Eurasia.

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