US, EU try to move beyond sandbox spat

Leaders at summit yesterday pledge unity, but differences persist on individual issues.

You're simplistic.

Yeah? Well, you're irrelevant.

At times recently, relations between the United States and Europe seem to have devolved into taunts, with each side looking like its goal was to belittle the other.

Verbalizing widespread alarm in Europe at President Bush's "axis of evil" characterization of potential targets in the terror war, French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine earlier this year said that US foreign policy was "simplistic." In response, some policymakers influential in the White House scoffed and said it didn't matter, because the world's only superpower should not be confined by lesser powers unwilling to pull their weight.

Yesterday's US-European Union summit at the White House provided an opportunity for both sides of the Atlantic to pull back from increasingly shrill positions and focus on the areas of cooperation – primarily economic, but also on issues like counterterrorism – that make their relationship important.

Still, the two old allies continue to see differently on a growing number of issues – from US tariffs on steel to Iraq – that some observers say should not just be papered over with words of unity.

Mr. Bush, in fact, has invited Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar to stay on past the summit for a weekend visit at Camp David. This is a telling indication of what the US thinks of its conglomerate European partner – that it is a collection of leaders and powers, who cannot yet be taken collectively and not all of whom are equal.

In a speech just before yesterday's summit – which was to bring together European Union (EU) Commission President Romano Prodi and Mr. Aznar with Bush – National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "Europe and the US see that our common and fundamental interests and values far outweigh our differences."

Such words are soothing, many observers say. But they add that they fail to acknowledge publicly the impact of widening differences – while in a sense also taking the world's two economic heavyweights off the hook from taking more seriously their role in leading the global economy.

"Sure, there's some truth in the 'common values' point, but ultimately it's happy talk," says John Hulsman, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Fundamental differences

Ticking off a list of fundamental areas where the two disagree – the international criminal court, defense spending in NATO, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the death penalty, international environmental policy – Mr. Hulsman says, "wishful thinking only stands in the way of addressing some of these problems."

One reality the US faces is that while "Europe" may have differences with the US, the Europeans are also dealing with differences among themselves. Before leaving Europe for Washington, Mr. Prodi appeared to warn the US that unilateral pursuit of war with Iraq could strain transatlantic relations. But such warnings overlook the fact that different European leaders see Iraq differently.

Given that context, many Americans see European leaders like Prodi with little relevance in areas like foreign policy – or even counterterrorism – where much essential European action remains national. "The tensions haven't gone away, but the reality is that these summits are not the place where the US and the EU can seek to address these types of differences," says Philip Gordon, an expert in US-European relations at Washington's Brookings Institution. "Much of our work in Europe remains more with the Britains, the Germanys, the Frances."

That's one reason Bush is inviting Aznar to Camp David. Besides that, Bush feels a certain political sympathy with the Spanish center-right leader. And following as it does British Prime Minister Tony Blair's stay at the president's Texas ranch, the Camp David invitation suits Aznar fine. "Bush wants to strengthen the bilateral relationship, and in terms of its standing in Europe, Spain has been trying to crack the circle of the chosen few," says Mr. Gordon. "So this serves them both."

For their part, European officials say their leaders came to this first summit meeting since Sept. 11 largely in the spirit reflected in Ms. Rice's words, emphasizing common values and interests. But there remains suspicion of an American administration that is seen having "unilateralist" tendencies and a different perspective on key issues like the Middle East.

Divisions in US

They say the US, too, has its divisions that make US positions less clear. "We're heartened by some of the changes we see with the Bush administration becoming involved in the Middle East," says one EU official in Washington. "But we also see the divisions and the influence of the people who say, 'Fight terrorism full stop, and whatever [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon does is OK.' "

Also, EU officials are furious with Bush for slapping tariffs on imported steel to protect the ailing US industry. The Europeans say it was a bald-faced electoral move designed to boost Bush's prospects in swing states. But in the spirit of the moment, they say that they are hopeful some compromises can be reached before the row degenerates into retaliation – which the EU is promising without some US change.

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