Mainstream views of European politics very rarely look past the Franco-German motor. President Trump’s verdict on the European Union as “basically a vehicle for Germany” accepts this common view among Western policymakers. But a resurgent European periphery offers Trump’s administration a chance to reshape the power dynamic in Brussels to Washington’s advantage.
Major foreign policy positions are set at the European Council, where the foreign ministers of the 28 member states meet under articles 21-46 of the Treaty of the European Union to decide what their common position will be. Though this high-level decision-making committee usually requires a unanimous consensus, provisions exist for a majority of countries (15 out of 28) or a qualified (two-thirds) majority of the population of Europe—voting shares representing about 300 million of Europe’s roughly 500 million citizens—to call the shots. Faced with a strong enough bloc supporting their ally in Washington, it is unlikely that even the strongest holdouts will isolate themselves against the majority.
Certain green shoots of this budding consensus have already come to the fore. Former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar of the ruling center-right party penned an op-ed calling for unified Western action on Iran. NATO stalwarts in Northern and Eastern Europe are leading insurgencies against the German-led consensus on various issues would relish the chance to rack up points on the board in this new era of European politics.
And then there is Italy, an aircraft-carrier wielding a G7 economy with 60 million European citizens maligned by Brussels on migration, finance, and sovereignty over the last decade. Having just elected a throng of insurgent populist parties who have promised to coalesce under an anti-federalist “dream team,” the natural leader (and target of lobbying by the United States) emerges: Rome.
After the 2008 financial crisis, emergency procedures were enacted at the federal level, like a rule for maximum deficit spending. These reforms were mainly aimed at restructuring the public sectors of profligate southern European countries, Italy especially, given the systemic importance of their economy. Ideologically reflecting the governing German Christian Democrats’ conservative fiscal policy, the rising star of Merkel’s leadership put down roots. Germany was expected to play a new role: leader of Europe. There is no reason to expect Berlin to hold this baton forever.
As Europe moved from the financial crisis to more traditional foreign policy concerns, the role chafed. Instability of the eastern border (Ukraine), managing massive flows of refugees, and replacing the Italian government with a Brussels-appointed technocracy were met with timidity in Berlin. Chancellor Merkel’s prevalence has waned as the war of attrition between her and the hardline factions within her party forced her to renege on her own positions.
Indeed, the story of the last decade in Europe can largely be told in terms of Berlin and Rome. Idealistic Brussels bureaucrats, having secured assurances that the migrants wouldn’t be turned back, hoped to house every refugee in border countries like Italy, Greece and Malta. They were thwarted when Berlusconi threatened to hand out Italian passports to every arrival, fully aware they’d be on their way to Northern Europe within hours. Berlusconi himself would end up forced out by Brussels during the height of Merkel’s power—but can now legally be the prime minister again, an ominous development for European federalists well aware that he’s been keeping grudges.
Eventually, Italy signed a bilateral deal with Libya, a slap in the face to the whole European project. Multilateralism was supposed to offer better solutions than unilateral or bilateral action. Yet after almost a decade of multilateral failure to deal with the migrant flows from Libya, Rome solved the problem by itself, a damning indictment of the EU’s claims to legitimacy.
The main caucus arguing against the White House position on the Iran deal is the powerful Franco-German business sector, thirstily looking at the Iranian market. Given the strong links between the White House and insurgent leaders in Europe, outmaneuvering one constituency in one European country should not be too challenging. The White House’s strategy to unify the allies against Tehran runs through capitals like Rome, Madrid, Warsaw, Vienna, Copenhagen and The Hague.
As National Security Adviser John Bolton outlined, nobody should have been surprised by President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal, least of all Berlin and Paris. The notion that a major campaign promise could be put to rest with a quick bit of diplomatic legwork by the Europeans belies a self-righteous presumption that should be put to rest.
Given that Berlin is on the verge of joining #TheResistance, it may be no bad thing for transatlantic relations, in the long run, to give them a black eye on Iran before things get worse.