Just when President Bush had signaled a strong interest in working with Europe on a list of global issues, the European Union is thrown into deep turmoil that could pull its focus inward and away from the world.
Sunday's blow from French voters opposing an EU Constitution, and Wednesday's expected knockout from the Dutch in their own EU referendum, are likely to leave Europe in a period of introspection and preoccupation with internal affairs. And that, experts say, will distract European leaders from an emphasis on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iranian nuclear moves, Iraq reconstruction, and global trade liberalization - all areas where the Bush administration had hoped for Europe's undivided engagement.
"This was the moment when the administration was attempting to develop a closer relationship with Europe as a union to put its weight behind a rather large number of international issues, but the president may find the EU missing in action," says Simon Serfaty, a specialist in US-Europe relations at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Mr. Bush kicked off the first year of his second term with a trip to Europe in February, during which he highlighted a desire to replace bitterness over the Iraq war with cooperation on democratization and economic development, particularly in the Middle East. While in Belgium, the president made a point of focusing on the EU's institutions in Brussels, saying a strong and united Europe was America's chief partner in world affairs.
At the same time, the deep political crisis caused by the French vote and the embarrassment it delivered to French President Jacques Chirac - the biggest thorn in the side of US efforts to muster international support for ousting Saddam Hussein - could be sending a ripple of satisfaction through the White House. But the new weakness of not just Mr. Chirac but also German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and even British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a result of the developments is not ultimately in America's interest, most experts agree.
"Some people in the US may be happy because this is a blow to Chirac, and then because this vision of Europe as a counterweight to the US in the world is dead for the moment," says Patrick Chamorel, an expert in transatlantic affairs at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "But while the US may want to avoid a counterweight, it also wants a strong partner in Europe, for everything from the Middle East to Iran to consolidating democracy in parts of Europe. And neither [the counterweight nor a strong partner] is true right now."
Europe's crisis comes just as officials prepare a particularly intense schedule of diplomatic meetings between US and European leaders: at a US-EU summit in Washington on June 20 and at the G-8 summit in Scotland in early July. Bush is also scheduled to host Mr. Blair at the White House next Tuesday, and Mr. Schröder on June 27. The leaders plan to discuss issues ranging from democratization and global development to the ongoing Doha Round of international trade liberalization negotiations.
"Progress is at least halted at the moment," says Benita Ferrero-Waldner, external relations commissioner for the EU, who was in Washington to prepare for the June 20 summit. But she adds, "At the same time work continues on other vital issues." Indeed, EU and US representatives announced a joint summit on Iraq to be held in Brussels on June 22.
Yet in the coming weeks and months, European leaders will have multiple considerations to handle. Blair, just coming out of a bruising reelection bid, takes over the revolving presidency of the EU Council in July. He will be preoccupied not only with Europe's way forward but also with Britain's place within Europe, some observers note. Schröder - who won his last elections with an anti-Bush rant - is considered very vulnerable in elections scheduled for later this year. And Chirac just this week responded to the "non" vote on the EU by naming as his new prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a nationalist with an anti-American streak who is expected to focus on domestic issues.
"The voice of the EU will be weakened until there is new leadership in France and Germany," says Mr. Chamorel. Noting that Chirac's term does not end until 2007, he adds, "It may take that [new leadership] to relaunch US-European relations."
For some experts, the dream of a European Union of 25 members - and more on the doorstep - with one foreign policy and one set of domestic policies under one constitution was simply premature. And that means the United States will have to retool its relations to reemphasize state-to-state diplomacy on many issues.
"The truth is that the Europeans don't agree on free trade, they don't agree on how to organize the economy, they don't agree on what to do about the arms embargo with China, and they don't agree on how they feel about the US," says John Hulsman, an expert in transatlantic affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Pointing to the efforts of the so-called "EU 3" - Britain, France, and Germany - to negotiate an end to any weapons development in Iran's nuclear program, Mr. Hulsman says it is "really a state-to-state initiative."
But Mr. Serfaty, who is also a fellow in US-Europe relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says reverting to relations with a Europe of divided nation-states is not the answer. For one thing, he says the EU 3 are able to carry on talks with Iran - talks that the US supports - because they have the weight of the full EU behind them. And he says that in a similar way, the US needs the weight of a united Europe to press forward on issues ranging from democratization to world trade.
"Bush went into Iraq with many of Europe's heads of state behind him but not the Union," Serfaty says, "and it proved not to be enough."