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Is the COVID-19 crisis another nail in the coffin of the transatlantic alliance?

The Bush administration cracked the U.S.-European alliance and the Trump administration appears poised to finish the job.

Analysis | Washington Politics

No matter how the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, one of its likely casualties may well be the transatlantic alliance that has binded the United States and European Union together since the end of the World War II.

It has already been systematically undermined by the President Donald Trump’s “America First”-style unilateralism that saw the United States withdraw from international agreements, threaten or ignore its allies, openly promote regime change in EU member states, and seek disintegration of the EU itself. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this trend of geopolitical decoupling.

The transatlantic alliance was historically based on a common understanding of shared core values and broad alignment of policy goals between the U.S. and the EU. Even if some European states or the EU as a whole did not support all U.S. initiatives all the time, a benevolent perception of American leadership was widely shared on the continent.

Catastrophic blunders like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have dented that perception, but the rift was temporarily healed by the election of Barack Obama. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” effect may, however, leave more lasting damaging consequences as, perhaps, for the first time Europe is realizing that it no longer shares many common values and goals with the U.S.

The U.S.’s chaotic responses to COVID-19 also reinforced the impression of declining competence and pragmatism at the top levels of decision-making, progressively ceding ground to ignorance, if not outright ideological and religious zealotry. That makes continued reliance on American leadership even more hazardous.

Fresh examples include Trump’s ban on travel from Europe, ostensibly to protect the U.S. from the pandemics, which was introduced without any consultation with the U.S.’s closest allies across the Atlantic.

Another was an attempt to bribe a German company working on the anti-COVID-19 vaccine to secure it exclusively for the U.S. — an utterly shocking move from a European point of view that holds health as a universal public good that should be accessible to all, not only to the chosen ones.

Where, however, the pandemic has perhaps exacerbated the transatlantic differences most is in relation to Iran. This country is one of the most severely hit by the virus, which is partly due to the severe mismanagement by the authorities, and partly to American sanctions. The dire humanitarian situation, however, is not stopping the U.S. from slapping new sanctions on Iran.

In fact, some leading hardliners such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting-Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell see the pandemics as an opportunity to deliver on their long-term fixation of toppling the Iranian regime.

Seen from this angle, sanctions and related suffering of civilians become not an unfortunate collateral damage of the pressure campaign, but very much a sought outcome – punish Iranians for their failure to rise up against the regime.

The EU has adopted an opposite approach. It pledged 20 million euros for humanitarian aid to Iran and supported Iran’s request for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight coronavirus. Announcing these measures, Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, explicitly blamed U.S. sanctions for the worsening crisis in the country. He also clarified, once again, that trade in medical devices and pharmaceuticals is not subject to the U.S. sanctions.

This does not imply the EU recognizes the legitimacy of those extra-territorial sanctions, but it provides a much-needed legal certainty to European economic operators, notably banks and transport companies, at a time when swift action is needed.

The EU could, and hopefully will, go even further by joining the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in publicly urging the U.S. to lift sanctions. It should also build a coalition at the IMF, notably with Asian shareholders, to overcome an American opposition to Iran’s loan request.

But already the European trajectory could not be more divergent from the American one. EU actions put pressure on the U.S. by highlighting its growing isolation on Iran.

This is not because the EU has no disagreements with the Iranian government, or sides with Tehran against Washington. In fact, it does share many of the American concerns regarding Iran’s regional policies, ballistic missiles program, and human rights record. But contrary to the U.S., the EU does not believe in collective punishment of the people because of the transgressions of the regime that rules over them, and much less so during the outbreak of deadly pandemics.

Nor does EU share the goal of regime change pursued by the U.S. administration in all but words. Problematic though the Islamic Republic’s policies may be, there is no available alternative that would be demonstrably better.

Trump’s maximum pressure campaign did not bring about a change in the regime’s policies, or change of the regime. To the contrary, it elicited maximum resistance from Iran, and raised tensions in the Persian Gulf almost to a point of war, which would all but guarantee Iran’s withdrawal from the EU-sponsored nuclear agreement and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Finally, the U.S. refusal to relax its pressure against Iran at a time of severe pandemic raises questions over the basic competence of its government. If the hope of this policy is to provoke regime change or regime implosion in Iran, the immediate result would be the collapse of the country’s healthcare system, and with it, an end to any organized effort to stem the tide of the coronavirus.

However, it will not be possible to confine it to Iran alone, as the medical science does not work according to the diktats of Washington hawks. It will inevitably spread across the region and directly affect U.S. allies and U.S. troops and citizens deployed there. This is the reason why Iran’s regional opponents like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) delivered aid to fight the virus. Ideological obsession with confronting Iran — a distant, economically weakened Middle Eastern country posing no existential threat to the U.S. — was always a monumental waste of resources, but at the time of global pandemic it is also dangerously irresponsible. There is no reason why the EU should play along, and it rightly isn’t.

None of this means that the COVID-19 crisis cannot revive the transatlantic alliance by making the U.S. and the EU work together again on multilateral, socially responsible, sustainable answers to such global challenges as pandemics and climate change. The EU, however, cannot afford to wait until it has a willing partner in Washington. Standing firmly on its own feet may be a better investment into the preservation and improvement of the multilateral, rules-based world order than clinging to the old certainties of the transatlantic alliance that once did this job, but no longer does.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Photo credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO /
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