NOTHING like a common enemy to bring two often-bickering giants closer together.
That may be the central lesson of the few hours that United States President Clinton and European Commission President Jacques Delors spent together here on Jan. 11.
Both leaders spoke in remarkably similar terms about the economic challenges facing the world's wealthy countries. And both vowed that cooperation between the two world economic giants must grow as they seek ways to preserve their postwar prosperity even while preserving jobs, creating new ones, and protecting the middle classes that are the backbone of their democratic systems.
Mr. Clinton said Western Europe and the US must work with a common need to address the twin threats of job loss and income stagnation.
``We do not want to see a collapse of the middle classes in Europe and the US,'' Clinton said after broad economic discussions with Mr. Delors and Greek Premier Andreas Papandreou, whose country holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union (EU). ``We have the Russian [parliamentary] vote as an example of what happens when people think their future is less promising than their past.''
Russia's Dec. 12 elections, occurring against the backdrop of a swiftly falling standard of living, resulted in a strong nationalist opposition that has sent shivers through Eastern Europe and the West.
Clinton said the US and Europe would be working together soon in a number of areas, including finalization of the so-called Uruguay Round trade accord reached last month; preparation of a jobs conference set for Washington in March; extension of world trade discussions into the ``next generation of trade issues,'' including the environment, competition, and labor standards; and reaffirmation of the focus on the new market economies of East Europe.
European leaders who were looking for signals of renewed US interest in transatlantic relations got a boost from Clinton's words and actions during his three-day stint at the NATO summit here. But the time devoted to the EU was seen here as a reminder of the importance of the US-EU partnership.
But perhaps the clearest sign of the ``equal partnership'' came during the tough US-EU negotiations last year that helped lead the way to the Uruguay Round accord under the General Agreement on Tariffs And Trade (GATT). Both Clinton and Delors acknowledge the role those negotiations played in giving the transatlantic relationship a more balanced footing, and analysts here agree.
The US-EU negotiations in the context of GATT are ``a sure sign of a new, strong, and equalized relationship based on mutual self interest, and not simply on the enlightened interest of the postwar era,'' says Stanley Crossick, director of the Belmont European Policy Center here.
The ties forged between the two main trade negotiators, Sir Leon Brittan for the EU and Mickey Kantor for the US, remains a particularly apt symbol of the ``new'' US-European relationship, Mr. Crossick says. ``These are two very intelligent, very capable men who have forged a productive relationship based on mutual respect. It augurs well for more transatlantic cooperation.''
Also well received was Clinton's repetition of his support, outlined in a speech here Jan. 9, for Europe's economic and political integration.
Many in Europe have long believed that when it came to Europe's integration, Washington spoke with forked tongue: Support was there in theory, but in practice the US often indicated that it considered European unity to be a threat to the transatlantic relationship.
Leaders of the European Union, formerly called the European Community, recall the uproar that followed a letter that then-US Secretary of State James Baker sent to several European colleagues as they negotiated the Maastricht Treaty for European Union in 1991. Mr. Baker warned of the possible debilitating consequences to US-EU relations of Europe's plans for a common defense policy.
The letter was taken by some here as a condescending attempt to interfere in the Community's deliberations, and a sign that Washington preferred a loosely organized and dependent Europe.
SUCH impressions were not calmed with Clinton's election. The new US president spoke of incorporating economic policy into a broader definition of foreign policy, and Europeans worried the friction would simply shift from defense to economic issues. But Clinton's first visit here has had a reassuring effect. ``Delors couldn't help but notice with satisfaction that Clinton spoke specifically of Europe as a strong partner,'' a Delors aide says.
``My administration supports European union,'' Clinton said in his Jan. 9 speech, adding, ``We recognize we will benefit more from a strong and equal partner than from a weak one.''
Delors says he recognizes that when Clinton speaks of European integration, he is not speaking just of the 12 countries of the EU and their economic and political integration, but of the broader Europe embracing the former communist countries of the East. And the EU leader says he recognizes that Western Europe has a particular responsibility in assisting Central and Eastern Europe.
But EU officials insist that Western Europe has ``no lessons to learn from the US'' on the effort needed to help the East develop its democratic institutions and market economies. The EU, these officials note, provides more than half the aid going to Central and Eastern Europe, and imports three-quarters of the region's exports to the West.