Most observed that relations have improved as tensions over the Iraq war have faded. And EU officials, in introducing yesterday's debate, emphasized the shared values and interests that make the EU-U.S. partnership vital for both sides.
Representing the European Commission was Slovenia's Janez Potocnik, the science and research commissioner. "I would like to start by stating two simple and irrefutable facts: first, EU-U.S. relations are truly unique and irreplaceable; and second, the balance sheet of the trans-Atlantic relationship is fundamentally positive," Potocnik said.
Potocnik was standing in for External Relations Commission Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who yesterday was en route to Washington to meet with outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor, Condoleezza Rice. Potocnik noted the EU and the United States enjoy the largest trade and investment relationship in the world, responsible for millions of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. He also praised recent advances in political cooperation in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.
However, Potocnik said the United States must learn to accept a stronger EU role in the world. "That being said, it is clear that the EU-U.S. relationship must adapt to the changing security environment and to changing global priorities," he said. "But it must also adapt to changes within the European Union. We are convinced that as the enlarged EU's foreign policy strengthens, so too will the scope and intensity of our relations with the U.S."
Speaking alongside Potocnik was Luxembourg's development cooperation and humanitarian affairs minister. Jean-Louis Schiltz, who represents the EU's current presidency, expressed a similar sentiment. He said the EU-U.S. relationship must adapt to a "larger degree of choice and political will" on the part of the EU than during the Cold War, growing EU interest in securing its own collective security, and further coordination of internal EU policies. Schiltz concluded that direct EU-U.S. relations in the future would acquire increasing prominence.
In the debate that followed, most MEPs expressed hope that Bush would abandon what was commonly described as his "unilateralist" foreign-policy approach. And many said Bush's scheduled visit to Brussels and Germany on 22-23 February is a symbolic chance for a new start.
That sentiment was echoed in Paris. French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told reporters yesterday, "I think 2005 should mark a new start in our relations, between the United States and France and between the United States and Europe."
In Strasbourg, deputies from the right of the political spectrum as well as those from new member states appeared more conciliatory toward Washington. Deputies from the left were more skeptical of U.S. intentions and willingness to acknowledge the EU as a genuine partner.
More concretely, both Potocnik and Schiltz as well as many deputies indicated that the EU seeks a reinvigorated U.S. engagement in the Middle East peace process.
Retired French General Philippe Morillon -- who commanded UN troops in Bosnia in the early 1990s -- put EU expectations most succinctly. He indicated the United States must bring pressure to bear on Israel following the recent election of Mahmud Abbas as the new president of the Palestinian Authority.
"I hope that trans-Atlantic relations will end up being reinforced by the resolute commitment that the European Union and the United States must bring to that process, to grasp the opportunity before it's lost forever. The new Palestinian president will have to encourage the process of relaunching dialogue and renouncing violence. But that courageous position will only be sustainable if it rapidly -- that is, between now and the summer -- receives strong signals that this approach is not any form of capitulation," Morillon said.
The EU views the Middle East as one of its top foreign policy priorities. But officials recognize that peace would require a major effort by the United States.
A number of deputies also reiterated the standard EU view that Middle East peace is key to the success of the U.S.-led "war on terrorism."