As President Donald Trump was celebrating his four-point declaration of intentions on the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was addressing the European Parliament on the consequences of the US withdrawal from a real working nuclear agreement: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.
The debate was convened by the members of the European Parliament concerned with the fate of this signature achievement of EU diplomacy. It served to take the temperature in the chamber. This is meaningful, as the EP has a say in concrete measures the EU is promulgating to salvage the JCPOA.
Following the meeting of EU leaders in Sofia on May 18, the European Commission has updated the Blocking Statute designed to protect EU companies from the extraterritorial sanctions of the US, and of the European Investment Bank (EIB)’s External Lending Mandate, which would make Iran eligible for investment activities by the EIB. Following the adoption of these measures on June 6, the Council (representing the governments of the EU) and the European Parliament will have a period of two months to object before they enter into force. If no objection is raised, the updated acts will enter into force at the latest on August 5, just before the re-imposed US sanctions kick in.
The EU governments have, so far, demonstrated unity in rallying behind the need to save the JCPOA. The US administration, however, is ratcheting up pressure on the weak spots in the EU, such as Poland and Hungary where populist rulers have shown much sympathy for Trump’s agenda.
When it comes to the European Parliament, a minority of MEPs could trigger a vote on both or either of the measures proposed by the Commission within the two-month period starting June 6. A simple majority will determine the final result of the vote. Today´s debate showed that, even if a necessary threshold is achieved to force a vote, a solid majority of the house is behind the JCPOA and Mogherini’s efforts. Although many MEPs repeated the well-known concerns about Iran—such as its missile program, human rights record, and regional policies, including support for Syria´s regime of Bashar al-Assad and threats against Israel—even Iran skeptics seemed broadly convinced by Mogherini’s argument that the JCPOA opened the gates for dialogue to address these issues.
As an example of progress on regional dialogue, Mogherini mentioned the EU3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom) plus one (Italy) engagement with Iran on Yemen, which led to UN General Secretary Special Representative on Yemen Martin Griffiths’ meeting with Houthi rebels in Sana’a. This may be a small example, but the growing tensions around the JCPOA have led to a narrowing of space for even modest progress on the Iran-related issues of concern to the West.
A novel element in the debate was the much more assertive language used by centrist MEPs to defend not just the JCPOA, but a rules-based, multilateral order as a whole, and their identification of Trump´s reckless policies as a threat to this order. Some approached Trump´s violation of the nuclear agreement in the context of a broader transatlantic divide that includes U.S. imposition of tariffs on European goods, US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and global migration compact, and the sabotage of the G-7 meeting in Canada, to name but the most egregious examples. Brazen attempts to meddle in the domestic politics of EU member states—such as the public support given by the American ambassador to Germany to far-right populists and Steve Bannon´s crusade to radicalize Europe—prompted some MPs to see Trump´s America not as a long-cherished transatlantic ally but a threat to everything the EU stands for.
Tellingly, the dissenting voices came from the extreme right. Assorted euro-skeptics and populists parroted the Trump team’s talking points about the JCPOA being merely an executive agreement by an administration that is no longer in office and called on the EU to follow suit by abandoning the “dying agreement.” Although Mogherini usually never engages in debates with the extreme right, this time she made an exception. Aiming at a broader audience, she drove home the point that the JCPOA is enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR), and thus is part of international law, and the US unilateral withdrawal from the agreement amounts to a violation of a resolution that it itself endorsed. She then challenged the populists to explain how their calls for “European sovereignty” are consistent with their professed readiness to follow Washington, not Brussels, on the Iran deal.
The debate in the European Parliament showed once again that the battle to preserve the JCPOA far transcends the non-proliferation agreement with Iran. It is about the re-assertion of Europe´s sovereignty, defined as its ability to stand up for its interests and values and uphold an open, multilateral, rules-based international system.