Prague, 25 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The latest trade clash between the United States and the European Union --this time over bananas-- generated plenty of headlines in the U.S. But as the issue eases off the front page, experts on both sides of the Atlantic are debating whether U.S. citizens are truly paying attention to a relationship likely to have an increasing impact on their economy.
Earlier this month, Washington threatened to impose unilateral trade sanctions on the EU if it failed to change a trade policy that favored banana companies in the Caribbean --notably, in the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. U.S. officials argued that the EU's trade rules discriminated against banana exporters in Latin America, a region where large U.S. companies have vested interests.
The threat of a trade war with the EU stimulated debate in the U.S., capturing the attention of a wide array of publications, from Newsweek magazine to the New York Times. Yet nearly three years after President Bill Clinton and EU Executive Commission President Jacques Santer signed a pact aimed at promoting ties between the two, observers say the U.S. is slow to grasp the relevance of its relations with the EU.
According to Jan Bierhoff, director of the European Journalism Center, this neglect means Americans are not thinking enough about their economic future. Bierhoff and his colleagues at the Netherlands-based organization seek to help journalists cover EU issues.
In Bierhoff's words: "There has been less (U.S. coverage) than there used to be in the 1950s ,when there was another generation of journalists who you could say were much more Atlantic in their approach and their mind-set. That generation is gone by now and has been replaced by people who are much more focused on domestic affairs."
Ten Central and East European countries are now lined up to join the EU, which already consists of 15 West European member states. Some observers, like Bierhoff, fear the U.S. is too insular toward this massive trading bloc, which seems likely to gradually change the global economic structure.
The U.S. and the EU account for about 20 percent of each other's trade and about half of the other's foreign investment, making their trade relationship the biggest in the world. Bilateral trade between the U.S. and the EU reached about $300 billion last year.
Some experts believe the single EU currency, the euro, to be introduced in January, will uproot what has been called a "dollar-central system." That system has been in place around the world for most of this century. These experts therefore forecast an era of increased economic rivalry between the U.S. and the EU. In a report issued last September, the prestigious U.S. Council on Foreign Relations said between $500 billion and $1 trillion of investment may shift from dollars to euros.
Other experts, however, predict a golden age of fewer boundaries and new opportunities for both U.S. and EU businesses.
Bierhoff said his organization had tried to create a program with the New York's Columbia University a few years ago to assist U.S. journalists in their efforts to report on EU developments. Those plans crumbled because of a lack of interest among the U.S. media. Studies tend to show that interest in the EU among U.S. general readers is quite low. According to a report released last year by the Pew Research Center, U.S. citizens are generally apathetic about events that occur overseas. More than 60 percent of those polled said that what happens in Western Europe is irrelevant in their lives.
The study did not examine U.S. attitudes about Eastern or Central Europe. But a separate Pew study revealed that a mere six percent of the U.S. population "closely followed" debate about NATO enlargement.
Another U.S. body, the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland, came up with a rather more positive result when it examined American perceptions of the EU itself. The head of that study, Steven Kull, said that --contrary to prevailing opinion-- U.S. citizens generally believe the EU i-s important and that it has or will have an impact on their economy and their jobs. Still, Kull said, U.S. media coverage of the EU is relatively weak.
Christopher Makins, an adviser in the U.S. to the EU Commission, told RFE/RL that on the academic level, there has been a surge of interest in EU developments. And he said that, while the population as a whole is not closely monitoring European developments, he is optimistic that interest will grow beyond the classrooms.
"When you go out beyond that (academia), there is more or less the mass public. There I would say the interest has not been terribly high and it's probably lagging even further behind (academia), but once there is such a thing as a single currency in Europe and people who are traveling there become more aware of it, even at that level, you'll get a greater awareness of it."
Makins, a former British diplomat now working in Washington, urged the Commission last summer to promote European studies in U.S. universities. Since then, the Commission has launched a program at 10 universities designed to enhance the U.S.'s understanding of Europe.
Makins says the coming single currency will change perceptions about the EU:
"The thing that would trigger the greatest potential increase in interest in the future is actually the development of the euro and the impact it may or may not have on the international monetary system, and currency markets, and people's perception of Europe as a major international player, now potentially with major international money."
One thing seems certain: the importance in real terms of the relationship between the U.S. and the EU appears certain to grow, and that in itself should act as an added stimulus to Americans to learn more about it.