BRUSSELS — The new Biden administration is making nice with the European Union, talking of renewed cooperation and suspending retaliatory tariffs stemming from an old dispute between Airbus and Boeing.
But despite the warm words and efforts at rebuilding trust, the American willingness to punish its European allies and impose sanctions on them in pursuit of foreign-policy goals continues to rankle.
It is an underlying tension, a ready reminder of the asymmetric power of the United States. That is especially so when it comes to what are known as secondary sanctions. While Iran and Russia, for example, may be the primary target of sanctions, the secondary sanctions punish other countries and companies — very often European — that do business with them as well.
Increasingly popular with Congress, secondary sanctions have been deployed to coerce allies to fall into line on any number of issues. In recent years, those have included the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, Iran’s nuclear program and the socialist governments of Venezuela and Cuba. The great fear is that they would some day be used by the United States against China — or even vice versa — leaving Europe squeezed in the middle.
a marked vulnerability for Europe, which depends on open markets. It has prompted serious discussions of how to defend Europe and the euro from Washington’s whims, and it has become a central part of the argument about how to create “strategic autonomy,” so Europe can protect its own interests.
Last month, the European Union announced efforts to strengthen an “anti-coercion instrument’’ against “unfair trading practices.” The main sources of them are China and Europe’s self-professed ally and partner, the United States.
While Europe favors using multilateral institutions on trade disputes, “we cannot afford to stand defenseless in the meantime,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Union’s commissioner for trade. The European Union must be able to defend itself “from those trying to take advantage of our openness,’’ he said.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, has condemned Washington’s use of secondary sanctions against European companies doing “legitimate business.’’
threatening “crushing legal and economic sanctions.’’
Denying access to the American market and the dollar is “an immense source of political power,’’ said Jonathan Hackenbroich of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, who has studied the issue as part of a project with senior German and French officials, who want to reduce European vulnerability.
Almost any company that has business in the United States or uses the American banking system or the dollar is going to try to preserve that relationship and cut off business with the target of the sanctions, he said, even to the point of “overcompliance.”