‘Sometimes you have to walk’, said Donald Trump this morning as talks between him and Kim Jong-un broke down. With no new summit planned, the prospects for a denuclearisation deal with North Korea are not good. Yet South Korea was still keen to look on the bright side: the two leaders had made “more meaningful progress than at any time prior”, a spokesperson for president Moon said. For all the criticism chucked at Trump, this progress (albeit limited) is worth remembering. At least he is trying, after all. But can the same be said for Europe?
It’s certainly striking that while Trump and Kim were at the centre of festivities this week, Europe wasn’t even in the building. The lack of European Union participation in the nuclear diplomacy must grate on the likes of German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron, both of whom represent the old and new generations of European leadership. Merkel and Macron would love to live in a world where Europe takes responsibility for its own affairs, implements an independent foreign policy, and rises like a phoenix into the big-leagues of world politics. As illustrated in Hanoi, Europe is still quite a long way from that goal.
Coincidently, the EU will still have a central role to play in the event of a North Korean denuclearisation deal, if it ever can be reached. The reason is quite simple: the United States is limited in the amount of economic relief it can provide North Korea in return. While Trump can use his executive authority to suspend some US sanctions on the books, he won’t have the ability to wave a magic wand and remove everything. The US Congress has enacted statutes that prevent this president (or any president) from engaging in most commercial transactions with Pyongyang. In 2017, for instance, Congress passed legislation banning any products, merchandise, or services from entering the United States if North Korean labour was involved.
At the time, the law was viewed as a reasonable way to buttress America’s capacity to crack down on Pyongyang’s finances. But that was before Trump and Kim “fell in love” and started exchanging letters. Now, that very same law will complicate any economic relaxation Washington can provide in return for North Korea’s nuclear rollback.
The EU will therefore have to pick up the slack, at least until Congress is able to go through the process of overturning the 2017 provision (given how unproductive and bottlenecked Congress is at the moment, let’s just say that this could take a long time). This means doing what the US can’t do under current circumstances: import North Korean products and engage in limited investment in Pyongyang’s economy. At the moment, European governments have prohibited European investment in any North Korean sector. But if a nuclear deal is eventually agreed to, it would likely be far easier for the EU to overturn their procedures than it would be for the Americans to overturn theirs.
Granted, the world is miles away from North Korea’s denuclearisation – and the breakdown of the summit makes this prospect even more remote. But whatever the odds, there is a small chance something positive will come about eventually one day. When it does, Europe will have to catch up quickly to ensure that the opportunity to help move history down the right path isn’t missed.