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If I were Iran, I would want to pull out of the JCPOA as well – Mogherini’s adviser

Washington’s disdain for international agreements has left Europe doubtful about the US as a trusted partner. Will the new EU Parliament constellations help Europe pull through? We talk about this with Nathalie Tocci, special adviser to the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Nathalie Tocci, it's really great to have you with us. Lots to talk about. So we’ll start with the latest elections in the EU. So the populist wave that everyone thought would take over didn't come about but the far right still got more seats than before in the EU Parliament. Big gains in Italy, in France, in Hungary are not enough to take over. But what do you think this gains will do, will it allow to disrupt the EU parliament from within?

Nathalie Tocci: Well, firstly I think you're absolutely correct. The gains have been there but they've been relatively marginal. We're talking about a 5 percent increase compared to 2014 and also a very strong, on the other side, consolidation of a very clear pro-European consensus between four political families: the Popular Party, the Socialists, the Greens and the Liberals. Now when it comes to the minority, that 25 percent minority on the nationalist side in a sense precisely because they are nationalist and being nationalist they're not particularly good at cooperating internationally by definition. Actually not only is it numerically a relatively contained minority but it is also one that is unable to work together. I think we have already seen the first instance of this. There was Matteo Salvini, the leader of Lega Nord in Italy, that essentially tried to unite the nationalists and the populists to that extreme right but failed to do so.

SS: So you don't think he's gonna be able to do that?

NT: He has already demonstrated that he's been unable to do so particularly by failing to reach an agreement with Poland. Incidentally Russia was the main source of that disagreement because, of course, populist and nationalist disagree on most issues. I mean, be it Russia, of course, being one example, be it migration, be it austerity and fiscal policy. In every single domain, every major domain of European policy they're actually at loggerheads with one another.

SS: But this is a big topic - the whole Salvini’s dream of creating this platform because he already has France and Germany's Alternative for Germany party and Marine Le Pen and he failed with Poland but he's hoping for Hungary's Fidesz to join and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. Do you think that could happen?

NT: Well, firstly Farage’s party is not going to stay there for very long. So by October of this year the UK is out. And therefore I would…

SS: But is it really? We’re going to talk about it too because we don't know now, because I know that after Theresa May resigned after the Brexit deal failed Tusk is saying now that there's a 30-percent chance that Brexit may not happen at all…

NT: Well, to be honest I think that they would have to be something very significant taking place in the United Kingdom and by “very significant” I mean a call before the 31st of October either for a second referendum or for a general election for the EU to allow for a second postponement of the deadline. I think, unless something so dramatic happens, I think even in a no deal outcome the rest of the EU, the 27 members, will see the UK out. So I actually think that with Theresa May out of the picture with a radicalisation within the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom this has actually increased the chances of a no-deal exit.

SS: Federica Mogherini has been saying that Brexit in no way hurts the EU, it is actually going to hurt the UK, it's going to be isolated now. But I still wonder how is it not hurting the EU because it is, like, a strong military power within the EU, second largest economy within the EU - how can it possibly not affect the EU at all?

NT: Well, I think that the main way in which it does affect the EU has already happened. So the big blow for the EU actually took place in 2016 with the referendum and that was the moment in which, you know, the rest of the world looks at the European Union and saw this as an edifice that looked like it was crumbling. In a sense we've already digested that pain, that cost. Now the big pain is actually on the UK more than on the EU because I think the way in which the rest of the world and certainly the way in which the 27 are looking at this is “what a bloody mess the Brits have made out of this with themselves”. We have actually, meeting the 27, managed to remain surprisingly, I would add, united on this front. So I guess what I'm saying is that we've already digested the cost. Now the big cost to be paid is really on the UK side, not the rest of the EU.

SS: I want to go back a little bit to the elections because there were so anticipated and people were so divided about it. The grand coalition in the EU parliament is sort of dead now. What does this mean? Is it going to be harder for the union to take consolidated decisions or not?

NT: No, I don't think it will be harder. I think, it means two things. One remains not fundamentally different from the past and what I mean by this is that those four political families, the Popular Party, the Socialists, the Greens and the Liberals are not new political families. All four were already present in the European Parliament, and in the European Parliament the way in which decisions are taken are very much issue-based and depending on what the issue is actually already in the past you have coalitions forming that even went beyond the solid sort of Popular Party-Socialist bloc, if you like, of the past. So in a sense on one level it's “more of the same”. These are four families that are used to working with each other. On another, indeed it is different from the past because it is not a two-party majority, it's a three- or four-party majority. But that in my view adds a new dynamism. I mean, unless one starts from the assumption that everything was perfect as it was, and I certainly don't share that assumption, so if one believes that actually a degree of renewal, a new dynamism is actually necessary, the fact that two major parties lost their majority and now have to work more dynamically across three or four political families in my view is good news.

SS: So what do you make of the far-right’s success? It's not considerable, it's not what people expected but it's still there. You can't completely disregard it. What does it mean in terms of the EU policies?

NT: Frankly speaking, nothing.

SS: So you're just like very sceptical, ironic about the whole thing…

NT: I’m very sceptical. I do think that whereas for this current institutional political cycle the strength of that minority is, as I said, negligible. What I do believe is that this is really the opportunity for the next five years to tackle some of the root causes that led to the surge of this populism in the first place.

SS: But you can’t really disregard completely that there was this surge in many countries and people were just now coming out in the streets and saying “we're not OK with the system that was in place before”. I mean, almost every country in Europe…

NT: Absolutely, it’s not just in Europe. It's in the United States. It's internationally... This is basically the story about the “losers of globalisation”. This is what this is after, it's not about the European Union, really. It's about growing inequalities. So it's a Russia story it's a US story, it's a China story and it's an EU story. So those are the issues that have to be tackled.

SS: What do you make of it in terms of the EU? What do you think are the main changes that should take place so that what you fear, far-right or far-left don't take over?

NT: Well, basically I think, you know, it is about having a European Union that is a more social union that basically adds on to the current monetary union set up to the current single market setup, not only a completion of the eurozone through a fiscal and political union, but also added to its single market dimension more social measures, you know, a European unemployment benefits scheme. I mean, you know, things that basically…

SS: What about giving more sovereignty to each of the states in terms of making decisions especially when it comes to foreign policy? Because in a lot of these debates also came down to migration and not being able to, you know, make your own decisions whether you want to let people in or not…Do you think that would help?

NT: At the moment the problem is exactly the opposite meaning that member states have complete sovereignty when it comes to…

SS: A lot of them would argue that point, you know.

NT: Technically speaking, legally speaking the competence is not an EU competence, it's a member state’s competence. If we take my country, Italy, what is my country asking for, it's not asking for a repatriation of competences on migration, it's actually asking for exactly the opposite - a Europeanisation of responsibility when it comes to migration.

SS: But then you take Hungary and it's asking for a different thing.

NT: It's asking for a different thing and it has it. It’s pursued its own independent migration policy and it hasn't allowed anyone in. So Hungary has pursued what it wants.

SS: What do you make of this idea - because I heard that people in Europe when it comes to national elections, they tend to vote for the traditional parties because they directly impact their lives; and then when it comes to EU elections they sort of have this out-of-the-box thinking going on, and that's why actually they're saying that Nigel Farage does but he does in Britain but not so much in the EU parliament... What do you make of this idea?

NT: I mean, I think there is some truth in that. In a sense some new political ideas are being tested out in the European elections. I think this is actually one of the things that makes the European elections so interesting. You know, beyond the fact that they are the second largest democratic elections in the world after India. So obviously there's a question of scale that makes them so significant. But also this idea indeed of testing out new ideas because indeed at European level you don't only have the traditional, if you like, left-right horizontal divide. You also have very significantly a new vertical divide that is really characterising a lot of 21st century politics which is really one between the open and the close, and so translated in the European level it is about being pro-European or Eurosceptic. So I think this is one of the things that makes them very interesting. On the specific point about the United Kingdom though, I think that whereas you're absolutely right, in the past Farage did make a much stronger showing at European elections rather than national elections, I think, in this specific European election it is more a story about an implosion of the Conservative Party which may also be therefore reflected in new general elections if they were held in a short time span. And more broadly I would add, this is about an implosion of a political system in the United Kingdom, really triggered by the disastrous conduct on their side of the whole Brexit affair.

SS: What about the transatlantic relations? I mean, they've had their ups and downs. Ever since Trump came to the office ironically enough he's actually sympathetic to the Eurosceptics and to the whole populist party wave. Do you think maybe these whole far right populist parties’ gains will actually have a good effect in terms of EU-American relations now?

NT: Well, not really because they're not in charge. You know, out of 28 member states you basically have only three that have governments being represented by nationalists. One of these three, Poland, has actually a very close relationship with Trump's United States. In the case of Italy, I think, you know, so-so. And in the case of Hungary, closely but Hungary frankly speaking is a very small country. Whereas, you know, other 25 member states are actually being governed by parties that have a completely different view of populism, of nationalism and consequently of the Trump administration.

SS: Federica Mogherini has said that EU will continue boosting defence cooperation between the member states and at this point the Pentagon was just, like, if EU shuts out the American companies out of defence contracts then Washington will retaliate. Do you think you will stick to its guns when it comes to defence contracts?

NT: I think that we don't have much of a choice. I think we have to. This is really about quite aside from the Trump administration. A structural transformation which is going on in the world really, and it is clear that in a world in which there are the Americans, the Chinese, the Indians, the Russians etc. Europeans can only really be a player at that global top table by standing united. We are already united on the economic front and we increasingly understand that we have to do so also on the defence front. Let me be very clear, this is not in order to be protectionist. You know, when we talk about autonomy as an ambition, as a goal, the bottom line is basically having the ability to act. Now, it's part of our DNA to try and act together with our partners whenever and wherever we can. But what if our partners don't want to act with us? Then we need - and we feel we need to have the ability to act on our own.

SS: So the big question whether you can act on your own or not, is the Iran deal. So right now Rouhani is saying that, you know, “I'm going to withdraw from JCPOA unless you stand firm and show some courage”. Do you think this is the last warning to the EU? Do you think Tehran is actually serious about quitting the deal?

NT: I think, and all I can say about this is, putting myself in Iranian shoes, and if I were an Iranian decision maker I would probably be making these threats rightly so. I mean, it's clear that if one side of a contract lives up to their commitments, meaning Iran and the other side, meaning the other E3+3, and obviously this includes Russia as well, it's only fair for one side to say, “Hang on, you know, if you continue acting this way I'm going to pull out”. Now having said that, I also think that it would be actually fairly irrational for Iran to leave the JCPOA before 2020 simply because it is basically a year and a few months time before there could be a change in the United States…

SS: ... or not.

NT: Or not. And indeed if the answer is not, then indeed if I were Iran I would probably not stick with the JCPOA because indeed, as I said, the social contract can only hold if both sides live up to the bargain.

SS: But many analysts are saying that Rouhani is behaving this way because he wants to exert some pressure on EU. Do you think Tehran's expectations are legitimate?

NT: Absolutely.

SS: Can he do something to actually move you to act?

NT: You know, there has been some movement. The point is that we're talking about something which is very complicated technically as well as politically. I mean, and this by the way is not just an EU affair. I mean, when the EU tries to set up an INSTEX mechanism this is not only to allow for trade between the EU and Iran without being subject to extraterritorial sanctions, it is also a mechanism eventually to allow for other actors to do the same without being hit by U.S. extraterritorial sanctions. And this also includes Russia and China. So this is in my view really part of a much-much bigger story that goes beyond Iran, that goes beyond the Middle East, that goes beyond non-proliferation and which does not only concern Europeans - it includes all international actors because today we're talking about in terms of U.S. extraterritorial sanctions on Iran. What if the struggle, the rivalry, the competition, the contest between the United States and China boils to the point where the U.S. decides to impose extraterritorial sanctions on China?

SS: Oh, it could come to that.

NT: Precisely! And what does this mean in terms of our trade, in terms of your trade, in terms of everyone's trade?

SS: Well, you know, Russia couldn't care less. You know that, it just continues trading with Iran and luckily Russia has its own oil so it doesn't need to…

NT: It hasn’t done so as much as the Iranians expected it to do.

SS: True. Everyone's being cautious but still it doesn't go along with American line. But the Europeans, like you, a lot of them, were outraged, like, you know, “this is not in our interest to scrap this deal, so we're going to continue doing our thing with Iran”. But then, you know, when Americans are slapping sanctions, from what I understand, most of the major companies are wrapping up and leaving.

NT: This is what I mean. The point is how to create a global investment climate that induces companies to make those investments even in the event of U.S. extraterritorial sanctions. So obviously you're absolutely right. There are more European companies in this situation than Russian companies but this affects everyone. And, you know, of course, governments cannot point guns at the heads of companies forcing them to do so. What we have to try and do is to create an international investment and trading environment that allows for companies to freely engage in those investments and trade without being unduly punished for it.

SS: I know that you've been saying that the U.S. and Europe have very different objectives vis-a-via Iran: EU’s sort of seeking to contain Iran's nuclear program and America wants regime change in Iran. So Trump obviously who very often changes his mind now says that Iran could be a great economy under Rouhani and he doesn’t want a regime change there. Why don't you trust him?

NT: Well, because perhaps he should try and change his national security adviser that very clearly has a very different position on this one.

SS: I mean he has a lot of disagreements with a lot of people within the administration. But at the end of the day you got to give it to him, he does what he wants to do.

NT: I think, unfortunately, on Iran he's actually been led into a very different direction. As I said, particularly by John Bolton whose positions on Iran date back way further down, sort of back the line, you know, in the Bush administration and even earlier. So unfortunately at the moment it seems to me that the U.S.’s Iran policy has a very clear author and that author is not the president of the United States.

SS: So China and America are in the midst of fiercest trade war. But Europe has its own thing going on with America. What if America does slap Europe with the auto tariffs? What's going to happen?

NT: I think, you know, on this I feel fairly confident that, as I said, on trade Europe is an actor. And it is an actor to be reckoned with. You know, I think that if we're talking about defence, if we're talking about other policy areas it is still a very asymmetric relationship. I think this is not the case on trade. So ultimately all I can say is that Europeans would respond and would retaliate.

SS: But he also has its own problems to deal with China... Can he afford to actually be at odds with the two largest economies in the world?

NT: Well that's why I think that ultimately unless the U.S. acts completely irrationally it will have to back down and change its strategy on trade.

SS: What about the whole One Belt One Road? I know that America is very much against it because it feels like it would give China not only economic power all around the world but also geopolitical power. Europe is reluctant to follow the American hard line...

NT: It's reluctant to follow it in the same way. But I do think that there has been a change of heart in Europe with respect to the Belt and Road and maybe…

SS: What’s Europe’s position now?

NT: I guess, you know, there has also been some change within Russia itself. Once upon a time we used to look at Belt and Road as being a purely geoeconomic endeavour. Yes, China pursued a geostrategic agenda in East Asia but basically when it came to, you know, China's policies westwards this was basically about geoeconomics. I think now we begin to see far more clearly that Belt and Road, yes, is a geoconomic project but it has a very clear geostrategic intent.

SS: Can you elaborate on that? Where do you see that?

NT: It is basically a means of establishing and consolidating and expanding influence.

SS: But China doesn’t really ask anything in return, like, you know, political regime change or anything like that. Usually Americans do that...

NT: No, it does ask some things. I mean, look at the way in which China has tried to act in a very typical divide-and-rule fashion in winning over some European countries with respect to its position on the South China Sea. So it does not simply look at it through an economic lens, it tries to use its economic advantage for political and strategic gains as well. And I think this is something that we're beginning to understand far more than we did, which is why there is a far greater understanding of the need for us to be united vis-a-vis China because, of course, it is very easy for China to play its game. And therefore the 17+1 and various other initiatives where it's in our interest, of course, not to block China off, it's in our huge economic interest to bring China in, but to do so in order to stand on a par with China economically and, therefore, also geopolitically by standing united.

SS: And I know that you want to act as a united front when it comes to One Road One Belt. Some member states are saying, “Well, you know, we’re going to sign contracts with President Xi on our own”. What do you think?

NT: This has always been the case. I mean, this sort of tension between acting uniting and acting bilaterally has always been at the heart of European integration. But I think it's a changing balance. In favour of greater unity not because we all agree with each other and love each other but because we understand that unless we do, we are all liable to lose out. So it is not, you know, a point in which yesterday it was like that and tomorrow it's going to be like this. It’s a changing balance and a changing story. But I think the direction of travel is towards greater unity rather than towards greater disintegration and fragmentation.

SS: Nathalie Tocci, thank you very much for this interview. Good luck with everything.

NT: Thank you.

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