As the US and EU square off over Russia sanctions, only Putin can win

Instead of applauding Washington’s moves against Putin, the EU is furious. Russia’s leader is again profiting from the craziness around Donald Trump.

Mike Pence, the US vice-president, is on a European tour this week to assure allies that “America First doesn’t mean America alone”. But Europeans are dismayed by the craziness pouring out of Donald Trump’s White House. “When will this madness end?” a former prime minister of Finland recently tweeted. “Please America, go back to how you were: great and all.”

Last week, another transatlantic spat erupted. The EU openly complained about the new sanctions against Russia adopted by the US Congress. One reason the US took this step was to show Russia that it wouldn’t be let off the hook after US intelligence agencies concluded that the country had interfered in the US election. Another was to place Trump in a Congressional straitjacket: as a result of the sanctions bill, the US president is no longer able – even if tempted – to single-handedly ease the sanctions. He’s given up on vetoing it.

One would think the Europeans would be breathing sighs of relief. After all, they had been worried about Trump striking a secret deal with Vladimir Putin over their heads. Western sanctions provide leverage in dealing with him on Ukraine, where the war continues unabated. Having Congress step in to ensure the sanctions aren’t overturned should be good news.

But that’s not how the EU reacted. It didn’t rejoice. Instead, the German foreign ministry suggested a US business plot was at play to promote liquefied natural gas exports to Europe. The French government questioned the international legality of the bill. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, was so incensed he called for retaliatory measures (although the EU later stepped back from that threat).

In this episode, the EU gave the impression that it was somehow siding with Putin against the US Congress. That was awkward. You can picture Putin just relishing the spectacle of splits appearing between Washington and its European allies. Some in Brussels claimed that the US sanctions risked dividing Europeans on Russia, rather than uniting them. But that handily glosses over the fact these divisions have long existed. And that they’ve been made worse by the behaviour of various European energy firms.

Take the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that Russia wants to build across the Baltic sea into Germany, with the help of German, French and other companies. The project angers central Europeans and the Baltic states because, from a Kremlin standpoint, it undermines Ukraine, through which much of Europe’s gas is currently piped. The US bill potentially targets the new Baltic pipeline. This infuriates Germany, which has always insisted that Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial endeavour – though that argument hardly squares with how Putin uses energy routes to further Russian influence in Europe.

The EU reaction seemed to prioritise large corporations making money in deals with Russia, rather than the wider diplomatic picture. To be fair, not all the European complaints were disingenuous. Earlier versions of the US bill over-reached into areas that might have prevented the EU from diversifying its energy routes away from Russia. These days Washington is so embroiled in political chaos that it seems incapable of looking beyond its own bubble. Nor was the European reaction entirely unanimous. There was notable silence from Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, who is an open critic of Nord Stream 2.

A transatlantic rift has opened up all the same. By complaining, rather than expressing solidarity with those in Washington who want to constrain Trump’s pro-Putin instincts, the EU appeared to contradict earlier pledges. Two months ago Angela Merkel declared: “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.” In the age of Trump and Brexit, Europe needs to stand up for itself as never before. To an extent this new stance has been on display – on climate, trade and values. But last week it no longer seemed synonymous with standing up to Trump.

One can easily guess some of the reasons. Merkel is seeking re-election and keeps a close eye on Germany’s business lobby, as well as those parts of German public opinion that favour a conciliatory stance towards Russia. France’s Emmanuel Macron is careful not to break ranks with Merkel. He also happens to have courted Trump spectacularly. Central and eastern Europeans don’t dislike the US bill, but they matter less than the Franco-German partnership – and Poland’s populist government is emphatically Trump-friendly. As for Britain: consumed by Brexit it has all but disappeared from the European picture.

But perhaps the deepest reason of all is that none of this was subject to much open political debate. The EU commission acted technocratically, more interested in entrenched business interests than in geopolitics. Redefining Europe-US relations under Trump is no easy task. But if Europe has a card to play in Washington, surely it is more with Congress than with the Oval Office. Last week showed how the dizzying madness surrounding a scandal-plagued White House can have a strange impact on this side of the Atlantic.