European Affairs

U.S.-EU Relations: Carrying on Despite the Mudslinging     Print Email

This article is based on a series of meetings organized by The European Institute in Washington in April and May to discuss current problems in U.S.-EU relations, the outcome of the U.S.-EU summit meeting at the White House on May 2, and the background to President George W. Bush's trip to Europe in late May. There are storm clouds over the Atlantic. Once again, relations between the European Union and the United States are threatened by trade disputes and disagreements over how to deal with the rest of the world at a time of rapid economic change and increasing threats to international security.

After a moment of spontaneous and deeply felt sympathy for the United States in Europe following the September 11 terrorist attacks, anti-Americanism has quickly re-emerged among left-of-center politicians, intellectuals and a broad swathe of the media.

Americans outside government have responded in kind, with some commentators accusing Europeans of anti-Semitism, others calling them useless allies, or "gobs of jelly," in the words of one columnist.

There is no agreement on whether we are witnessing a passing squall, of which there have been plenty in the past, or whether this time more profound differences are emerging that could open deep cleavages in the West as it faces the new threats of the 21st century.

Disputes over trade are nothing new. But the current crop of disputes is worse than usual. That is not only because two trade-distorting actions recently approved by President George Bush - tariffs on imported steel and a farm bill bulging with subsidies - threaten to undermine the international trade negotiations agreed in Doha last fall.

It is also because trade disputes such as these are now seen by Europeans as the fruit not just of the usual poisonous cocktail of U.S. commercial and domestic political interests, but as examples of something much more worrisome - a general U.S. disposition to pay scant attention to the needs of its allies at a time when it ought to regard allied solidarity as especially desirable.

The ugliest Transatlantic exchanges have not been about steel tariffs but about the very nature of each other's society. Recriminations have penetrated the previously sacrosanct refuge of shared values, on which both sides have traditionally fallen back to demonstrate the strength of their relationship when it has been ruf§ed by disputes in more superficial areas, such as trade, in the past.

Acrimonious clashes over the war on terrorism, possible U.S. military action against Iraq and the Middle East have been more vituperative than the usual policy differences and past European charges of U.S. "unilateralism."

Asserting the primacy of their own values, Europeans, for instance, have claimed superiority over Americans in the field of human rights (e.g. over the "detainees" held at Guantanamo), while Americans have dug deep into European history to accuse Europeans of being by nature appeasers and anti-Semites.

Some in official leadership positions, including former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and European Commissioner Chris Patten, have fanned the §ames. But most of those entrusted with managing the U.S-European relationship - governments, the European Commission and members of the European Parliament - are doing their best to try to keep the tensions under control.

In a series of high-level Transatlantic exchanges in recent weeks, including a U.S.-EU summit meeting in Washington on May 2, leaders on both sides have insisted that none of the current divisions are insuperable, that the two sides are closer on many issues than often thought and that much of the trouble has been exaggerated by the media.

Their recommendations are to stress the common interests and values that both sides share, rather than to impugn them, and not to get too upset when domestic political pressures have unfortunate consequences for trade relations, such as the U.S. steel tariffs and the Farm Bill. Trade disputes should be solved pragmatically by recourse to the rules of the World Trade Organization.

Meanwhile, officials on both sides are emphasizing the positive aspects of the relationship and pointing out how well the United States and the European Union are actually working together in many fields.

Europeans, for instance, are carrying a big share of the military and policing burden in the Balkans, increasingly sending troops to join American forces in Afghanistan and cooperating closely with the United States in the struggle against terrorism in the fields of finance and law and order.

Even on the embattled trade front, "We have fewer substantial trade problems with Europe than with the rest of the world," Charles P. Ries, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, told the meeting to assess the U.S.-EU summit's outcome in Washington. "We have a transatlantic trade and economic community that works very well."

The summit meeting was as usual a low-key affair that did not tackle the more emotional charges that have been bandied about in recent weeks. Both sides emerged stressing that the talks had been productive and good-natured.

Agreeing that they could not solve everything in four hours at the White House, the two sides emphasized a so-called "positive agenda" for current and future collaboration, including areas such as banking, insurance, regulatory cooperation and electronic commerce. These were areas in which "modest but important steps" were being taken, Mr. Ries said.

For now, the aim on both sides is clearly to keep the relationship on track and develop existing forms of cooperation rather than build elaborate new bridges across the Atlantic - not least because the European Union has not completed an ambitious agenda of institutional and other reforms, the final outcome of which is still unknown.

"This is not the moment for another big intellectual and conceptual effort to continue re-writing the Transatlantic Agenda," Günter Burghardt, Head of the European Commission Delegation in the United States, told the same meeting. "The European Union is a moving target."

A new visionary effort would be more appropriate in two to three years' time, Mr. Burghardt said. That would allow the European Union time to admit up to ten new members, to complete the constitutional reforms currently under discussion in a special European Convention, and consider how these changes would effect its relations with the United States and with the wider world.

At that point, EU officials hope that a strengthened European Union will become a more equal partner for the United States in a stronger Transatlantic relationship. Already, Mr. Burghardt said, the European Union was acting as a valued partner for the United States in the so-called Quartet group, comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN Secretary General, which is tackling foreign policy problems such as the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The United States and the European Union could work together in engaging Russia, he said, with Washington applying leverage on strategic issues and the European Union employing economic leverage. Once the European Union is enlarged, Russia will be heavily economically dependent on it, and become very much part of a greater European economic area.

Americans are increasingly noticing that the European Union is "on the move," Mr. Burghardt said. The good news was that in a complicated world Europe could provide a zone of stability on the other side of the Atlantic, which was "part of the solution for the United States, not part of the problem."

The worst danger, Mr. Burghardt warned, was that the two Atlantic partners would take each other for granted. "But the biggest problem today is the gap in perceptions: Europeans, for example, are seen as anti-Semitic, while Americans are seen as blind to the cries of pain of the Palestinians," he said.

A similar view was expressed by James Nicholson (MEP-UK), Chairman of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with the United States, who told a meeting on Capitol Hill in April: "We want to end megaphone diplomacy. We want to stop insulting each other across the Atlantic."

Mr. Nicholson, who was speaking at a European-American Congressional Forum, organized by The European Institute, said there was ignorance in both Europe and the United States of what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

The European media, he said, had failed to convey the new spirit of nationalism that had erupted in the United States since September 11 and which was "very understandable." Americans, on the other hand, did not generally understand the exciting developments taking place in the European Union, especially the growing powers of the European Parliament.

Vince Morelli, Staff Director of the U.S. House of Representatives sub-Committee on Europe, stated that members of Congress felt comfortable with the level of dialogue taking place between the two sides, "despite some of the articles we see in the press and questions about whether or not the United States is talking to its allies."

That reassuring view was challenged by a member of the Spanish Parliament, who said that after September 11, Europe had offered the United States "all of our solidarity, our help and our willingness to work together against terrorism."

The United States, however, did not seem to have taken much advantage of the offer, he continued. "We have the impression that you said 'thank you very much, we'll call you when we need you,' but apart from that you went your own way and you developed your own actions. We had little information of what was going on, and we felt a bit left aside - that's the general impression."

"We would welcome some sort of reassurance that not only are we your friends, but that you are ready and willing to work together with us, and that your action is not going to be a unilateral action, but something in which we will collaborate on both sides of the Atlantic," he concluded.

Nevertheless, Javier Ruperez, Spanish Ambassador to the United States, said that the European Union and the United States had recently come closer even on vexed issues such as the Middle East and the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change. The latter was a very positive sign, "which makes us believe that in spite of the obvious differences that are there, some degree of common ground could be found to deal with the global problems of the environment."

As for the fight against terrorism, Mr. Ruperez said the two sides had to do a lot of detailed work in a number of very delicate areas involving differences between their legal systems. In the end, he had no doubt that the unifying forces stemming from September 11 would carry the day in Transatlantic relations.That, however, will not come about all by itself. As Mr. Burghardt put it, the two Atlantic partners must redouble their efforts every day to keep their dealings on an even keel, overcome misperceptions and not take their relationship for granted.

"We must put both feet on the ground and recognize that if we work seriously together, we can undertake enormous efforts to make the world a safer place," he said. "If we disagree and prefer slinging mud at each other, we can do a great deal of harm."


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number II in the Spring of 2002.

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