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EU: U.S. Relations Reach Delicate Phase

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Relations are ruffled between the European Union and the United States following the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. That decision has brought a sharp reaction from the EU, which continues to support the Kyoto process. The differences over this key environmental issue are only the latest in a series of disputes and disagreements between the world's two biggest trading entities. Does this mean relations between the two giants are set to worsen? Political analysts on both sides of the Atlantic express their views in comments to RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke.

Prague, 4 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Shock was probably the strongest feeling registered by European Union member states when confirmation came last week that President George W. Bush had decided to abandon the U.S. commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

The United States -- the leader of the world's industrial democracies but also its chief polluter -- says implementing the Kyoto accord would impose too heavy a burden on its economy. The EU nevertheless wants the rest of the world to press on with the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to fight global warming by reducing greenhouse gases.

The difference of view is clear, and according to Washington-based political analyst Bruce Stokes, the heat can be felt even on the cocktail-circuit level. Stokes, who is with the Council on Foreign Relations, told RFE/RL:

"I was just at a gathering last night of European officials and some Americans, and [there was] some very bitter cocktail conversation between the Europeans and the Americans over that very issue -- because the Europeans feel they have been given the back of Bush's hand by his statements about the Kyoto Protocol, and there was just fundamental disagreement on the threat global warming might pose."

Americans and West Europeans, under the grouping of NATO, have been the closest of allies for more than half a century, and it is hardly conceivable that their relations should be seriously impaired. But analysts say there is potential for the Kyoto row to have some negative impact. Paris-based analyst Guillaume Parmentier, the chief of the French Center on the United States, was asked by RFE/RL whether he expected negative consequences:

"The answer [to that] is yes -- if the U.S. does not alter its position, or at least does not pledge to do things on a unilateral basis to reduce carbon dioxide emissions."

The Kyoto dispute comes atop a series of differences between the two sides, mainly on trade and economic issues. Among them are a row over the fairness of the EU's banana import rules, one on the ban facing U.S. and other aircraft considered too noisy to use EU airports, and a potentially damaging disagreement on the fairness of tax breaks for U.S. companies selling goods and services outside the United States.

In one case, the United States has imposed sanctions on the EU, and in the other the EU is threatening sanctions against the U.S. Washington analyst Stokes notes:

"Most people I think who follow these [issues] feel we (the U.S. and the EU) have never been more at each others' throats than we are now. So that is not good, and what is particularly troubling about these disputes is that many of them are over issues that were previously considered to be purely domestic concerns -- like how do you tax a corporation, or what kind of food safety standards do you impose. And we are finding as we get into these disputes that they are much more virulent and arouse much more public passion than we ever experienced in [the] past."

Judged by the unilateralism of its Kyoto decision, the new Bush administration might be thought likely to take a hard line on these disputes. But Stokes thinks that would be a misreading of the situation. He says a number of decision-makers in the administration are what he calls "foreign policy types," with a general awareness of the "explosive nature" of the problems, and that they therefore appear to be treading softly. Even so, he acknowledges that things are going to be difficult.

Another analyst, Brussels-based Michael Emerson of the Center for European Policy Studies, cautions against excessive pessimism. He told our correspondent:

"I would be inclined to avoid a kind of linear interpretation of this whole business [of U.S.-EU relations], that there will be a widening of differences all down the road. In the trade-policy area it is quite possible that [the top EU and U.S. trade representatives] Pascal Lamy and Robert Zoellick, who know each other extremely well, it could even be that they manage these affairs constructively."

In Paris, French analyst Parmentier says the Bush administration's line on Kyoto has at least the virtue of being direct and honest, an approach which he says should make straight dialogue between the two sides possible in future:

"The thing is, it [such an approach] has an advantage over the position of the [previous U.S. President Bill] Clinton administration, which is that at least they [in the Bush administration] are taking their responsibilities, they are not hiding behind the Congress, for instance, which they could easily have done on the Kyoto Protocol --because it's quite clear that the [U.S.] Senate would never have ratified it".

Looking at the broader scope of relations between the United States and the European Union, analyst Emerson sums them up under four headings -- economic, political, military, and geopolitical. As to the first heading, the size and importance of economic links are manifest. Moving to the second, politics, he says:

"Clearly as a political partner [for the U.S.], the European Union is extremely important, because it is rock-solid in terms of democracy and its capacity to keep a stable and congenial regime in most of Europe. And also most important from the U.S. point of view is the [coming eastward] extension, the enlargement, of the EU, which is the principle stabilizing influence, more important than NATO enlargement for the former communist countries."

Under the third heading, military relations, Emerson says that Washington does not seem too worried about the EU's plans to develop its own rapid reaction force for use in European emergencies in which NATO does not want to become involved. Likewise, Europe has accepted with little fuss that the United States is going to go ahead and develop its own national missile defense shield.

Turning to the fourth heading, geopolitical relations, Emerson says the EU's influence and territorial reach are growing, Both he and analyst Stokes note the EU's decision to develop high-level contacts with communist North Korea -- a country which has always been within the U.S. and Japanese spheres of action. But neither analyst sees this as a sign that the EU is trying to usurp the U.S. role. Stokes says: "Some Americans may see that as the Europeans undercutting the United States. I actually see it as the Europeans merely beginning to act like global players."

As Stokes puts it, the EU is the small kid on the block who is growing up and wants to be accepted as an adult -- something that will require changes of attitude on all sides.

In sum, the analysts -- whether in Washington, Brussels, or Paris -- see the trans-Atlantic relationship as too important to be allowed to decline far.