Beleaguered politicians on the continent looked on as Trump scrapped America’s commitments to the Iran nuclear deal — the product of years of multilateral diplomacy and multiple high-wire summits hosted by the Europeans. They watched in dismay as Trump abdicated American leadership on climate action. And their objections were ignored as the White House rolled out a new road map for Middle East peace that contradicted the long-standing approach of both Washington and Brussels.
In this trying time, the E.U.’s top diplomat is putting on a brave face. “The list is long of things” that could be read as signs that the United States is “not very friendly,” said Josep Borrell, high representative of the European Union, in an exclusive interview with Today’s WorldView on Friday. But those differences, Borrell added, still can’t supersede a sense of transatlantic solidarity that endures.
“There are the things they say, and then the way things are,” he said. “We are not foes. We share common values.”
Borrell was in Washington for a first visit in his new job as the de facto foreign policy chief in Brussels (he also spoke to Today’s WorldView in the summer of 2018, when he was Spain’s foreign minister). He met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The veteran Spanish politician said that he and Pompeo are keen for a “reset” in ties between Europe and the United States, even as Trump plunges into a reelection campaign. “We are not going to banish [our disagreements] overnight, but the best thing we can do is talk about it,” Borrell said.
Those disagreements remain profound. Borrell, 72, arrived in Washington after a visit to Iran, where he went to help defuse simmering tensions in the Middle East. He also attempted to reassure the Iranian regime that Europe did not want to terminate the 2015 nuclear deal, which is a shell of an agreement after Trump slapped sanctions back on Tehran beginning in 2018. It’s a move that eventually compelled Iran to contravene some of the limits placed on its nuclear program.
“Without the deal, Iran would for sure be a nuclear power,” Borrell said. He insisted that it is still better now “to try to keep the deal alive and go back to full compliance for everyone,” a suggestion that would require the Trump administration to abandon its current campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran.
That’s an unlikely outcome. Much to Iran’s chagrin, Europe has struggled to help offset the economic blow, with governments and companies wary of falling afoul of third-party U.S. sanctions. “This deal is not just a nuclear deal,” said Borrell, pointing to the fundamental element in the bargain for the Iranians of sanctions relief. “It’s nuclear on one side and economic on the other side.”
If Europe can’t come though, Borrell admitted, “the deal will die for sure.”
Borrell also offered caution on Trump’s Middle East peace proposal. Though he diplomatically welcomed any overture that could “break the stalemate” between the Israelis and Palestinians, he warned against a plan that seems more an “ultimatum” than a blueprint for negotiations. He indicated that Trump officials seem undeterred by the widespread backlash to the proposal, which would probably make a viable, sovereign Palestinian state an impossibility and which was written with no Palestinian buy-in.
“They are strongly convinced of the advantages of the plan, and they strongly believe that this is the last solution for the Palestinians,” Borrell said. He suggested that the plan seemed designed mostly to win “further support of the Israelis,” an approach that “for us, is not the way to proceed.”
But, because of internal divisions within the 27-member state bloc, the European Union could not even speak in one voice over its concerns about Trump’s proposals. In an age of increasing great-power competition, especially between the United States and China, Borrell stressed that Europe has to work “to forge unity step by step.”
“If we don’t have this internal unity, it’s clear that we won’t be a strong strategic player,” he said, pointing to the chaotic situation in Libya’s civil war — where different European governments are pursuing at times divergent objectives — as an illustrative case in point.
“We are no longer the empires that mastered the world,” Borrell said. The continent’s leadership, he said, faces a historic choice: Whether to “be part of this competition” or to “just exist as the playing field that received the backlash of the competition.”
Borrell hailed Europe “taking the lead on climate change.” But, even there, he argued that the continent could not go alone in taking radical action to reduce emissions.
“That’s why we aren’t happy when President Trump goes to Davos” and discounts climate change, he said. Climate change is “one of the most important things we can deal with.”