European Affairs

A Testing Time Ahead for U.S.-EU Relations     Print Email
Quentin Peel

International Affairs Editor, Financial Times

The arrival of any new administration in Washington invariably means an uncomfortable learning period in Transatlantic relations. That is why many European observers thought that a victory for Vice President Al Gore in last November's election would have been preferable to one for George W. Bush.

From a foreign policy point of view, many international analysts could not see much difference between the two. But a Gore victory would at least have meant some kind of continuity, and the probability that a good number of top advisers from the Clinton administration would carry on with the new regime.


Now, European analysts, both in government and the private sector, are scrambling to brush up on the known and likely participants in the new Bush team, and to calculate how the probably complex relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill might affect international relations.

The greatest concern in Europe is undoubtedly that Mr. Bush will prove to be a man without a clear popular mandate, forced to spend his entire term of office seeking to prove his credentials, and distracted from setting a clear policy agenda. That could leave him pursuing only those policies for which there is overwhelming popular support, ensuring a bipartisan majority in Congress. Equally, it could make the powerful single-interest lobby groups on the Hill even more influential.

With regard to the Transatlantic trade agenda, Mr. Bush seems likely to be easier for Europeans to deal with than Mr. Gore would have been. He is by instinct much more of a free trader. Mr. Gore would have been beholden in particular to the often protectionist trade unions that helped deliver his votes in the election, and to environmental pressure groups.

Mr. Bush's attitude has raised hopes in Europe that he will support the European Union's efforts to launch a new round of world trade negotiations. But that cannot be taken for granted. For a start, regional trade arrangements, such as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, may well take precedence.

Much will depend, moreover, on whether the new president can persuade Congress to approve fast-track trade negotiating authority, without which the U.S. administration becomes hopelessly hobbled in international negotiations. Democrats determined to attach labor and environmental conditions to trade legislation, against fierce Republican resistance, could paralyze a divided Congress.

The Bush administration has inherited the intractable trade disputes that have bedeviled EU-U.S. relations during President Bill Clinton's years in the White House. The banana war, the dispute over hormones in beef, on hush-kits for aircraft engines, U.S. tax subsidies to exporters, anti-dumping measures to protect the steel industry, and the like, are no nearer resolution.

Both sides face the same pressures from the same lobby groups. In Europe, the groups' influence is often expressed through their ability to cause deadlock via individual member states in the EU Council of Ministers. In Washing-ton, it is through manipulation of votes in Congress. An insecure president would be hard pressed to face them down.

Much will also depend on the economy. If there is a downturn, or even a recession, the popular pressures for trade protection will be much greater than those for free trade. In spite of recent changes in the structure of the U.S. economy, including growing exposure to international trade, and to international investment - both inward and outward - there would probably be less support for a free-trade agenda in times of trouble.

In the field of international security, on the other hand, the EU is expecting more problems from Mr. Bush and his team than it would have from a Democratic administration. At the top of the anxiety list is National Missile Defense.

Mr. Bush's public endorsement of NMD has certainly caused alarm in Europe. The nervousness is by no means only focused on how Russia will respond to the inevitable renegotiation - or unilateral rescinding - of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty if NMD goes ahead.

There is also broader concern among Europeans that the establishment of a hugely expensive shield against incoming missiles might unleash a new international arms race - with China seen as the country most likely to react.

One school of thought in Europe is that NMD is inevitable, so Europeans must learn to live with it. Another believes - more in hope than in expectation - that the proposed system will prove technologically unfeasible. Most are skeptical about the ostensible American argument in favor of such a system - that it is aimed at protecting the United States against missiles launched by so-called rogue states.

Many Europeans believe that NMD is intended rather to protect America against the potential rise of a Chinese superpower, and they are highly nervous about the Chinese reaction. It is an argument that seems to cut little ice in Washington.

The second area of potential conflict between the new administration and Europe is over peace-keeping forces in the Balkans, especially Kosovo. The disinclination of the Pentagon to keep its troops in Kosovo is clear, and there is obvious Republican sympathy for the Pentagon's position.

It is not so much that the U.S. forces are essential for the peace-keeping exercise, because the Europeans are already providing more than 80 percent of the men and women on the ground. They are in a position to provide the entire force.

But that would ignore the real reason for wanting the United States to be involved. The Europeans are desperate not to have a repeat of the Bosnia peace-keeping operation, when the Europeans provided the troops, but the United States continued to pursue its own diplomatic initiatives.

Thus, American hardware was being supplied to one of the warring parties in Bosnia - the Bosnian Moslem forces - while European forces on the ground were being shot at.

That was the reason why the Europeans were so determined to bind the United States into any military action in Kosovo. And it is the reason why they are very nervous about U.S. withdrawal at this stage.

The Europeans fear they will be left in the middle, between a more compliant post-Milosevic Serbia, and an increasingly frustrated Kosovo, determined to win independence. If the new U.S. administration is tempted to back Kosovo, European forces could well end up once again being shot at with U.S.-supplied arms.

There is certainly no easy answer to stabilizing the Balkan region in general, and former Yugoslavia in particular. Any sign of division in Western ranks is certain to be exploited by one faction or another. Independence for Kosovo could be the first step toward the creation of a Greater Albania, which would destabilize not only Serbia, but also Macedonia and Monte-negro.

Bosnia-Hercegovina is a desperately fragile construction which could easily revert to its former warring parts under separatist pressure. And the new government in Serbia is far from firmly established.

As far as Europe is concerned, only closely coordinated policies pursued jointly with Washington are likely to be effective. The only guarantee of such a common line is to keep U.S. peace-keeping troops on the ground.

The third tense aspect of the security relationship concerns the EU's plans for its own defense force to deal with humanitarian and peace-keeping exercises, for possible use when NATO does not want to be involved. The plans amount to a European insurance policy against the evil day when the United States decides it does not want to participate - for example, in Kosovo. As such, there is a real danger that Europe's concerns could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The sharp warnings given by William Cohen, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, about the danger of establishing a force independent of NATO's command and planning structures, have certainly been taken to heart in Europe. There is a difference of view between France - which would prefer to see more independence - and Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, which are all strongly committed to NATO structures.

The Europeans have been striving to ensure that there is neither duplication of assets, nor a conflict of goals or motives. The Clinton team seemed to be persuaded, albeit reluctantly. But the Europeans will have to start a whole new charm offensive against the Bush administration.

Of course, the European force is only intended to be used for peace-keeping, peace-enforcement and humanitarian exercises. For any major operation, it will be entirely dependent on Alliance, and therefore largely U.S. assets, such as satellite intelligence and heavy-lift transport aircraft. It also binds in the EU neutral states, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Austria. It is not going to be used for Kosovo-style or Gulf War-style conflicts.

The combination of potential differences in the Balkans, and strains at the heart of NATO, pose a real challenge for EU leaders, and for the Bush administration. They could be compounded by a lack of obvious political sympathy.

Most of the 15 EU member states are now governed by center-left administrations - including Britain, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. France is divided between a conservative president, Jacques Chirac, and a socialist government under Lionel Jospin.

Mr. Chirac's Gaullist instincts make him an uncomfortable ally for Mr. Bush. So the only prominent European conservative leader with whom Mr. Bush's views will naturally chime is José-Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister.

That is not to say that leaders like Britain's Tony Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder are left-wing ideologues. They are pragmatic centrists. But they were undoubtedly closer to Mr. Clinton than they are likely to be to Mr. Bush. In times of trouble, political sympathies may matter.

All of which suggests that EU-U.S. relations could be in for a bumpy ride over the next four years.

And yet it should never be forgotten that the two sides of the Atlantic have far more common ground than they have differences, whether on trade, on security matters, in relations with Russia, or on the international economic and financial agenda. It is because those similarities are so often taken for granted that the disputes tend to get blown out of proportion.

The worry for outside observers is that a weak U.S. president could come to power at a time of weak European leadership. There are no outstanding figures amongst the EU heads of state and government. Many of them face re-election in 2001 or 2002. In good times, a weak government may be a positive benefit. The testing time for Mr. Bush and his European counterparts will be at times of international crisis.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.

 
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