January 28, 2020

The US Is Turning the Screw

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump.

A week before Germany, France and the UK warned of Iran breaching the nuclear deal, the US threatened to impose 25% customs tariffs on European cars unless the said countries triggered the dispute mechanism over Iran’s violations of the agreement.

Originally published in The Washington Post, the story was recently corroborated in a press conference in London by the German minister of defence, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Thus, Washington has resorted to extortion tactics by conflating trade policy with foreign policy and coercing the European Union into adhering to US foreign policy.

Because the EU has a common trade policy, even if the US wanted to tax only, say, German cars, it has to do so for the whole of the EU. For example, if Estonia manufactured and exported cars to the US, it would also have to be prepared for 25% US tariffs.

Washington’s threat (which European countries would have complied with anyway) poses many fundamental questions. First, the Iran crisis can hardly be considered over. While the prospect of military confrontation might have receded, activity in diplomatic circles has conversely intensified.

Boris Johnson, who won last month’s UK general election and will lead the country out of the EU on 31 January, is counting on Britain’s special relationship with the US. But in the context of Iran, the special relationship might not have much of an effect. British automobiles were also subject to the threat by the US. An additional question is how the whole mechanism of the Iran deal will work once Brexit has taken place: the US on one side, the EU on the other, and the UK on the third? However, in the future, London will be facing Washington on its own and the first warning bell has gone off in the form of the tariffs on cars.

If the US extortion tactics continue—and why should they not?—the question of the EU’s common foreign and security policy will naturally arise. After all, the EU deemed the Iran nuclear deal a success story for the common policy. But the question is also this: if the EU has to adhere to US foreign policy, how can it prove the contrary to a number of its partners—that it is, in fact, not on Washington’s leash? It’s as clear as day that people will start bypassing Brussels and the capitals of the EU’s biggest member countries. Why call Brussels when one can call Washington directly?

Finally, of course, Estonia. Our experience of the Iraq War in 2003 was negative, for we had to choose between the US and Europe. The bad blood Estonia’s choice caused among some European allies probably goes without saying. We can hope that the gap has been bridged, but if the US continues to mix trade policy and foreign policy, Estonia’s position between the two giants will become ever more precarious. “An added bonus” is Estonia’s non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council, which makes our decisions even more visible.

As of now, it might be said—partly in jest—that it’s a good thing Estonia doesn’t have an automobile industry. Imagine a situation in which the auto industry lobby rushes to the prime minister to say that concessions need to be made to the US. But it’s very likely that people will rush to the prime minister in quite a few other member countries. Hence the conclusion that the tightening of US foreign policy is internally dividing EU member countries. There are those who wish to pursue values-based policy, but also those who think more about people’s income. A similar divide exists within the EU: there are those who want to walk the same path as the US and those who really don’t.

This article originally appeared (in Estonian) in Postimees.


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