Charles Grant, a preeminent expert on Europe and the Franco-German relationship, says Europe’s inability to exert itself in the Iranian crisis gets to the heart of Europe’s own crisis of direction.
“The problem is France wants Europe to be a power; Germany does not,” he says. “If you want to be a serious power, you need a serious global currency. France wants that; Germany does not.”
It is not just German reluctance, though. In 1997, the U.K. spent 2.7 percent of its GDP on defense. Today that is barely at 2 percent—and the U.K. is one of Europe’s only two serious military players, along with France. One ambassador of a major European power, who requested anonymity to speak candidly on the subject, told me there were actually only “four or five” EU countries that even had a foreign policy. The rest didn’t want one, because they were perfectly content within the twin protective shields of European economic protection and U.S. military protection. The ambassador said the Continent did not even really have a single currency—it had multiple currencies all called the euro, but essentially operating independently because of the bloc’s failure to develop Europe-wide structures.
Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based international-affairs think tank Chatham House, says the Iranian crisis exposed not only European weakness but continuing U.S. strength, and this, she says, explained the Continent’s failure to exert itself in any meaningful way.
The European powers will always have to prioritize the American relationship over Iran, given the economic and security links with the U.S. “The U.S. has shown they have leverage over Europe as well as Iran,” Khatib says. “Europe, both economically and diplomatically, is unable to stand up to U.S. interests and wishes.”
Nathalie Tocci, a special adviser to the EU’s foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, says Europe’s obvious powerlessness throughout the Iran crisis could prove to be a catalyst for it to become a more influential global power, challenging U.S. global leadership. “This Iran story is far greater than Iran,” Tocci says. “It really epitomizes a structural turning point in the transatlantic relationship.”
Tocci says the agreement that has held since World War II—that the U.S. would provide for Europe’s security in return for accepting American leadership of the alliance—is collapsing. “The movement we’re seeing toward recognizing Europeans ought to develop a greater autonomy is an extremely painful process, because it starts from the recognition that [the] social contract between the United States and Europe no longer holds,” she says. “This is something which goes way beyond Trump. We can no longer take for granted [that] Americans are going to provide for our security. We’re obviously not there yet. We’re only at the very, very early stages of this recognition.”