Bush to Europe: Let’s Move On

Speaking of transatlantic relations during his recent European tour, President Bush emphatically claimed that "no temporary debate, no passing disagreement of governments, no power on earth will ever divide us." As journalist Shada Islam explains, there is some basis for the President's optimism. The United States and Europe have agreed to disagree on a number of issues, favoring constructive cooperation on other fronts. Bush has secured greater NATO involvement in Iraq, EU commitment to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, and joint calls for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Yet Islam also points out that despite the warm tones of European leaders, most Europeans regard the Bush administration with skepticism. The EU's commitment to multilateralism and more inclusive negotiation stands at odds with the more confrontational US approach, particularly in its dealings with the latest hotspot – Iran . At a time when US forces are stretched thinly around the world, collaboration with Europe is a must; however, lingering disagreements may sour the sweetness of this week's talks. – YaleGlobal

Bush to Europe: Let's Move On

Europe, too, is ready to work with Bush on some issues but differences and doubts persist
Shada Islam
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Happy days are back again? President Bush with European Union Council Secretariat Javier Solana (left), Union President Jean-Claude Juncker (middle), and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) in Brussels. (Photo: White House)

BRUSSELS: By astutely sidestepping controversial issues and stressing his support for a strong Europe, President George Bush has succeeded in improving the mood in once-sour transatlantic relations. But as Bush ended his much-publicized European tour with promise of future joint actions it was clear that there was a long way to go.

Despite the mellow public talk of common goals and values, repairing transatlantic relations following two years of bitter acrimony over the Iraq war will not be easy. "The vast majority of Europeans still view Bush with a mix of suspicion and disdain," says Fraser Cameron of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank. "Beyond the rhetoric, the prospects for a significant improvement in transatlantic relations are likely to remain poor," he says.

Certainly, basic divergences over political approaches remain. But the realities of economic interdependence, common philosophy, and necessary pragmatism have brought about a modus vivendi between the United States and European Union. To maintain this relationship, both sides must sweep some differences (e.g. over the Kyoto treaty and the International Criminal Court) under the carpet, and focus instead on areas of agreement.

This week, both parties have taken significant strides in acknowledging several common goals:

• NATO member states will expand their security training operation in Iraq, and EU governments will undertake a first-ever collective police training mission for Iraq.

• Europeans will join efforts to secure elusive Middle East peace. "Our greatest opportunity, and our immediate goal, is peace in the Middle East," Bush said.

• Both parties are united in opposing Russian authoritarianism. "The United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia," Bush said.

• Leaders also underscored the necessity for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. In a joint statement, President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac issued a "call for a sovereign, independent and democratic Lebanon."

After years of squabbling, why the change of tune? For all the new mood music, few in the EU have any illusions about just why Bush is coming courting. Washington is discovering the need for friends and allies because American troops are stretched thinly in Iraq. The Bush Administration has finally realized that it can make a stronger moral case for its presence in the country – especially vis-à-vis Islamic nations – with the EU on its side, says William Drozdiak, head of the New York-based American Council on Germany.

An end to transatlantic squabbles will also bring rewards for the EU. Pressure from European business leaders, anxious to keep transatlantic trade and investment relations on an even keel, is partly responsible for Europe's change-of-heart in dealing with the Bush Administration. With transatlantic trade valued at about €1 billion a day, and totals for 2-way investment amount to over €1.5 trillion, maintaining these economic ties is crucial. Also, having been ignored and derided for almost two years, EU politicians are clearly flattered that America is now wooing them so openly. Many EU policymakers also believe that easing tensions in many global hotspots, including in the Middle East, can only be done through joint US-EU efforts.

But Europeans are also insisting that the 25-nation bloc will no longer accept a mere walk-on role as junior partner in the transatlantic alliance. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is leading calls to allow Europe a stronger say in decisions made on the other side of the Atlantic. The German leader told Bush in recent talks that their countries were "equal friends, partners, and allies." Chirac has also called for a new balance in transatlantic relations, stressing the significance of the EU's emerging military capability. "On a global level, we are both major powers," European External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner said recently.

Though both parties understand the necessity for cooperation, they must still figure out how to reconcile fundamental differences in their political approaches. Unlike the United States with its penchant for unilateral action, the EU remains a firm believer in multilateral institutions and their ability to resolve crisis. European governments are playing a leading role in UN reform efforts, while the United States stays aloof. In contrast to frequent US threats of military action, Europeans have mastered the use of "soft" instruments – diplomacy, trade and aid – to counter threats. While Washington talks of a "war against terrorism," Europeans see it as a struggle "with action on several fronts," says an EU diplomat. Both parties firmly believe in spreading democracy and freedom across the world, but each does it differently. The United States remains wedded to the notion of regime change; the EU, meanwhile, views its recent expansion and new "neighborhood policy" to promote political and economic reform in Russia, Ukraine, and Middle East nations, as even more effective – and peaceful – vectors for promoting political transformations worldwide.

In the coming months and years, EU-US relationship will face several specific challenges. One major point of contention is the lifting of the EU's 15-year-old arms embargo against China. While Washington believes this move could destabilize the military balance across the Taiwan Strait and endanger US forces, EU leaders insist that a more effective code of conduct will prevent any transfer of sensitive technology to Beijing. The rift is about more than the arms ban, however, with the EU refuting the US view of China as a strategic competitor.

The Bush administration also remains skeptical of efforts by Britain, France, and Germany to negotiate a deal with Iran, under which it would cease nuclear enrichment activities in return for trade and economic benefits and security assurances. Washington, rebuffing European pleas to join the talks, has not taken the military option off the table. The United States is similarly hostile to EU support of Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), despite Brussels's contention that it would help open up the country and encourage reform.

Arguments over Syria are also expected. The EU is resisting US – and Israeli – demands that Hezbollah be added to an EU blacklist of terrorist organizations. This move would deprive the group, suspected of a role in the recent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, of funding from European supporters. Some EU members argue against a ban, on the grounds that the organization also has political and social welfare functions.

This week, European governments may have welcomed President Bush as a hero, but leaders know they must tread carefully in promoting transatlantic ties. European public opinion is still largely suspicious of the United States – huge public protests greeted President Bush in Brussels – and people remain wary of seeing their leaders cozy up to the US President. Once the echo of the grandiose speeches has faded, therefore, the transatlantic relationship will probably focus on what Ferrero-Waldner calls "pragmatic cooperation," with both sides working together in areas where there is no danger of clashing ideologies and philosophical differences. Though less ambitious than the speeches' promises, this would be a vast improvement on the past fraught state of affairs.

In his speech before European leaders Bush declared, "No temporary debate, no passing disagreement of governments, no power on earth will ever divide us." While the line received applause, there is no indication that the disagreements are passing or the debates will cease any time soon.

Shada Islam is a Brussels-based journalist specializing in EU policy and Europe’s relations with Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization