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2003 & Beyond: Trans-Atlantic Relations Healing, But Still Badly Bruised

The split between the trans-Atlantic allies this year probably represents their most serious estrangement of the postwar era. The sharp divergence over the war in Iraq between the United States and some of its European allies is only the most prominent in the range of disputes -- which run from ecology to trade. Will these tensions continue into the new year, or has the worst of the discord now passed?

Prague, 11 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-European relations during the past year reached such a low point that there were fears that half a century of amity was beginning to unravel.

The tensions between the allied governments was easily traced in the media, where journalists and commentators threw ink at one another in a way not seen before in the post-World War II era.

At its height, one U.S. writer went so far as to brand France the "enemy" for its stand against the Iraq war. European journalists, in turn, called the United States arrogant and misguided.

Iraq was the issue that brought relations to their nadir, and which also split the European Union partners themselves. The United States and its close ally Britain decided military action against Baghdad was imperative. However, major continental powers France and Germany shunned war, at least in the short-term.

After the U.S.-led toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in April, tempers began to cool, and the allies moved to stem a further deterioration in relations. But right at the end of the year, the Iraq affair again showed its ability to poison the wells of accord.

In a surprise move, the U.S. government announced a new policy barring companies from nations that opposed the Iraq war from bidding for prime Iraqi reconstruction contracts.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "I think it's only appropriate that those countries that have been involved with the United States [in Iraq] from the beginning and the Iraqi people and those who are contributing forces to the efforts in Iraq would be the ones that would be eligible for the prime contracts funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars."

German officials called the decision "astonishing" and "unacceptable." France said it would study the legality of such a policy, and Russia hinted at retaliatory action.

But Iraq was not the only point of contention. For instance, trade disputes between the U.S. and the European Union -- the world's two biggest economic entities -- over steel and tax breaks have been a major irritant.

Likewise, ill feeling has lingered over the U.S. rejection of the EU-backed Kyoto Protocol on climate control, on the grounds that it would restrict economic growth.

Then there is the International Criminal Court, an international tribunal designed to punish perpetrators of war crimes everywhere. Washington is strongly opposed to the EU-backed court and is seeking bilateral deals worldwide to ensure that American troops and officials will not be prosecuted.

With these encumbrances, can relations improve in the coming year?

Senior analyst Alexander Smolar of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw believes they can. But he says things will never be quite the same again. He says the old mold, forged in the Cold War, has been shattered as both sides realize they do have some differing interests.

"The certain weakening of political linkages seems to be an unavoidable tendency, especially in view of the economic competition, which has been present already quite a time, so I think there will be recognition on both sides that this is normal," Smolar said.

He says they will continue to have much in common, including their views on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Smolar says that -- notwithstanding the latest row over Iraqi rebuilding -- he expects to see the situation eased through more attention paid by the United States to multilateralism.

"We can see already a sign that [the United States] will attach bigger importance to multilateral politics, which was to a large extent [neglected] by the Bush administration, bigger importance attached to negotiations with other countries, and to the UN -- even though that is not a perfect organization -- and to NATO, and to old allies," Smolar said.

There are other signs that the worst may be over. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has spoken optimistically about prospects for solving yet another area of discord -- that is, the desire of some European Union members to have an EU military capacity independent of NATO.

In Brussels earlier this month, Rumsfeld said, "There are discussions and consultation [about the European defense system] taking place at the defense ministerial level, at the foreign ministerial level and at the prime ministerial level. And I'm confident and hopeful that things will sort through in a way that we end up with an arrangement that is not duplicative or competitive."

There are also positive signs that trade tensions will be kept within bounds. Earlier this month, the Bush administration lifted U.S. tariffs on imported steel. This removed the threat of billions of dollars in retaliatory EU sanctions and greatly eased the atmosphere between the two sides.

There is still the prospect of EU sanctions being put in place by next March in another trade case. It involves tax breaks for American companies operating abroad. But in this case, too, Washington is expected to have new regulations in place in time to avoid any EU retaliation.

The general atmosphere surrounding the Kyoto Protocol on climate change could be eased if Russia reverses its recent announcement that it will not ratify the treaty. EU officials say they think Moscow may just be holding out for a better deal for itself on the protocol or in some other area.

As for the International Criminal Court, no improvement can be expected in that disagreement.

In all, the rifts between EU members themselves may be harder to heal than those with the United States. Ian Begg, a visiting professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, says the summit last month between French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair marked only the beginning of a possible thaw between the two countries.

"Iraq and trans-Atlantic relations are where the major obstacles to a complete renewal of the [Anglo-French] love affair really start, because it remains the case that on the positions on Iraq and on the link with the U.S., they are at odds with one another -- and that, I think, is also going to feed into the positions on the EU constitution. So these two are still unresolved divisions, even if they are trying hard to paper over the difficulties. That's why I say it is [only] a beginning of a thaw after the great freeze of the last nine months," Begg said.

Even if it suffered setbacks in 2003, it appears the trans-Atlantic relationship is too big and too deep -- and has too much tradition behind it -- to founder for long.