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A nation must think before it acts.
With the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the decision to transfer the U.S. embassy there, U.S. President Donald Trump has made a first step to break one of Europe’s most deeply anchored reflexes. As former European Commissioner Chris Patten noted, “The main determinant of Europe’s political behavior” is, on the Israel-Palestine issue in particular, “the Pavlovian rejection of any course of action that might distance Europe from the Americans.” Yet, even though the automatic alignment did not happen this time—with the main European powers deploring the U.S. decision—the European Union is far from presenting a united front. It is divided, like almost every time when it cannot just collectively fall in line behind its biggest ally. However, the Trump administration has changed the context, and Jerusalem is only the first element in a series of transatlantic challenges ahead.
In a rare demonstration of unity, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom all expressed their disagreement with the United States’ Jerusalem embassy move. All three supported the UN General Assembly resolution, which “deeply regrets” the American decisions and considers them to be “null and void” from the legal point of view. Paris, Berlin, and London also all boycotted the opening gala of the relocated U.S. embassy. The head of European diplomacy, Federica Mogherini, has expressed “serious concern” in the face of the U.S. announcement. She also kept repeating that “the EU’s position remains unchanged.”
This common position is, by definition, confined to the respect of international law. In Mogherini’s words, “The EU remains firmly committed to continue working with both parties and with its partners in the international community towards a resumption of meaningful negotiations aimed at a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as capital of both.” This also involves, as she is keen on pointing out, compliance with the UN Security Council Resolution 478 calling upon the withdrawal of all diplomatic representations from the Holy City. This legalistic approach is complemented by other, more political considerations in Europe including the necessity to prevent the escalation of violence in the neighboring Middle Eastern region, as well as the need to avoid unnecessary provocations likely to radicalize Muslim minorities on its own soil.
In addition, Europeans generally feel uncomfortable with certain features of the U.S. decision-making process they consider as part of an unfortunate pattern. They do not appreciate being faced with an international fait accompli for a decision made—in their estimation—largely for electoral reasons. Closely linked to this, there is a strong reluctance in Europe to what they see as the contamination of the political discourse by religious references, the presentation of complex problems as a simple alternative between Good and Evil. Similarly, Europeans are wary of the unilateral option, especially when it is carried out overtly, which they consider both as a source of instability-inducing resentment and, in an increasingly multipolar world, as a dangerous precedent.
Despite this broad convergence of legal, political, and strategic considerations, the 28 EU Member States have not been able to issue even a single joint declaration. The first draft, right after President Trump announced the Jerusalem embassy decision, was blocked by Hungary, and the second one, on the eve of the transfer of the U.S. Embassy was opposed by Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In the meantime, the European Union as a whole could not support the UN General Assembly resolution expressing “deep regret” over the U.S. decision because six of its member states abstained from voting (the three above, along with Poland, Latvia, and Croatia). Finally, although 24 European countries boycotted the gala organized for the opening of the new U.S. Embassy, four decided to participate (Hungary, Romania, Austria, and the Czech Republic).
It is a safe bet to say that these Central and Eastern European countries were not struck by a sudden flash of enlightenment on the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and that this is, therefore, not the reason why they decided to go against the majority of their European partners. Just as in the “old Europe” versus “new Europe” division during the 2003 Iraqi crisis, albeit in a much smaller proportion this time, some EU member states/NATO allies prefer to distance themselves from European solidarity if they believe that it runs against Atlanticist loyalty.
As always when there is even the slightest internal dissension, the EU’s common position is limited to the lowest common denominator, namely the respect for international consensus and law. Yet, even with this minimalist approach, the fragile equilibrium among 28 member states might be jeopardized on two points. First, this is a mere momentary pause that will only last until the soon-to-be-announced American peace plan. As the French Foreign Minister said, “Since a plan is in preparation, it would be incongruous for France or the European Union to take a unilateral initiative.” However, if the U.S. plan is seen as not satisfactory to all, the project of an EU-Palestine Association Agreement or the question of the recognition of the Palestinian State could come back to the agenda, with all their divisive potential. Meanwhile, the Union will be busy trying to keep all the Member States in the ranks, whether it is on the non-transfer of their embassies (the Czechs are reportedly hesitating) or on the often troublesome implementation of the principled distinction between Israeli and occupied territories.
After the Iraqi crisis, the director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Nicole Gnesotto, highlighted one of the most persistent pitfalls of EU foreign policy making:
It is much easier for Europeans to agree a view on external crises than on American policy. In other words, world issues bring them together, while America is divisive. . . . While the Europeans find it fairly easy to agree a more or less common view of the world, they are divided on the Union’s role in managing the world’s crises . . . since that role is broadly function of the type of relationship each member country wants to build with America, bilateral or within NATO.
In other words, when collective alignment on the U.S. is not an option on a given issue, each European country determines its own position by first and foremost considering how it would impact their relationship with Washington. Are they prepared to temporarily break ranks with their greatest ally, or do they think that loyalty to the United States must prevail over the rest?
This perpetual dilemma appears today in a very particular context. Beyond the question of Jerusalem, two topics eminently dear to the Europeans’ heart, and treasuries, are now in suspense: the Iran nuclear agreement and trade tariffs. Add to that President Trump’s extremely “frank” political style, and an increasingly Eurosceptic European public opinion that risks becoming even more alienated at the sight of a dependent and ineffective Union. This is an explosive mixture where the recourse to the customary reflex of aligning themselves on, or making disproportionate concessions to, the U.S. administration might no longer be so self-evident to Europeans.
In this regard, it does not matter whose reasoning is “right” or whose policy, on a particular issue, is the most appropriate. On Jerusalem, trade tariffs, and Iran, there can be valid arguments on both sides. The question at the heart of the current turmoil in transatlantic relations is whether there is any point for Europeans to try to collectively defend their interests, let alone to define a policy—or these efforts are doomed from the outset, as soon as an issue involves, in any way, the United States. Due to President Trump’s propensity to raise the most sensitive topics, in an unusually direct manner and at an accelerated pace, it should not be long before we see the first tangible elements of the response.