Transatlantic relations [Archived]

EU-US relations have been on a somewhat bumpy ride in recent years with disagreements over issues ranging from the Iraq-war to the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court. These matters, however, are only a small part of an otherwise well functioning US-EU relationship. After the re-election of President George W. Bush in November 2004 there has been a sustained effort on both sides of the Atlantic to get relations back on track. During the European tour of President Bush in February 2005, which included a first ever visit to EU institutions in Brussels, it became clear that both parties had decided to overcome the previous animosity.  This was further underlined by the international conference on Iraq on 22 June in Brussels, which was co-hosted by the US and the EU. 

The roots of the strong commercial and military ties between USA and Europe in recent history date back to the Second World War. The US engagement alongside the allied nations, and the subsequent US support to rebuild the war-torn continent via the Marshall plan are still central to the relationship. From the early onset of the cold war these ties became stronger and were further consolidated through the establishment of the US-dominated NATO  defense alliance in 1949. The European dependency on US military power for protection became a fact, disliked by some, but rarely contested in principle by the dominant European political mainstream of Social and Christian Democrat parties.

A new and more complicated era dawned upon the relationship with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union ended its stronghold on Central and Eastern Europe, heralded the later EU enlargement in May 2004, but also undermined the raison d’etre of NATO as it had been known hitherto. The lack of an independent European military power became painfully obvious during the first Balkan war of the early 1990's, when the EU had to resign itself to waiting around for the Clinton administration’s decision to intervene in Europe’s own backyard. 

This event triggered cautious ambitions of an independent EU military capacity, and later a new will for France and UK to collaborate on European defence issues. EU defence ambitions were taken to the highest level so far, when the EU took over the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina in December 2004.

EU defence

Emerging EU defence ambitions in the mid-nineties were at first received with mixed feelings in Washington. On the one hand the US feared duplication of defence efforts and a weakening of NATO. On the other hand Washington eyed the new trend as a possible first step in a long overdue realisation among the European nations of the need to spend more on defence, which in the big picture could benefit NATO. As early as March 2003, when EU took over NATO’s Amber Fox peacekeeping mission in FYROM (Macedonia), the US had reconciled itself with the new situation.  

Iraq war and terrorism

While the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001 created a wave of sympathy with the US in Europe, plus immediately stepped up and still ongoing levels of co-operation on anti-terrorism, the run-up to the Iraq war in the winter of 2002-2003 destroyed much of the goodwill and put major strains on the partnership. The conflict also gave rise to tension within the EU among the countries supporting or opposing the Iraq war. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld successfully managed to play on the differences between the two blocs in the EU by talking about ‘new’ and ‘old Europe’. France and Germany were singled out as the ‘baddies’ by Washington, whilst the UK (in the shape of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his close relationship with President Bush), alongside Italy, Spain, Denmark and Poland, gave strong support to the US position. 

China arms embargo

The EU's plan to lift the 15 year long arms embargo against China in 2005 is a divisive issue between the US and EU. Lead by major arms exporting countries, UK, France and Italy, the EU argues that a reinforced code of conduct on on arms sales will be enough to secure the concerns of US and its allies such as Taiwan.

The EU, however, has chosen to put the lifting of the embargo on hold after pressure from the US administration. The issue died down after President Bush's visit on 21-22 February 2005 and mainly after the Chinese government in March 2005 adopted a law that would allow use of military force if Taiwan ventures down the road of independence. This made it politically unsustainable for the EU to go ahead with a lifting the ban. 

On a visit to China in July 2005 Commission President Barroso cited concerns over China's human right record as the reason why the ban was upheld 


On trade policy the EU and the US share the overall common goal of promoting trade liberalisation through the WTO as most recently defined under the Doha agenda. Disputes over GMOs, the use of growth hormones in meat production, and more generally the EU’s application of the precautionary principle, have grabbed media attention in an otherwise largely harmonious relationship. The two partners, however, have major recurring spats over trade subsidies. These are centered around subsidies given to the agricultural sector in both blocs, but issues such as subsidies given to the Aerospace industry (Boeing-Airbus) also provoked renewed tension. In May 2005  this lead to the US and the EU taking the issue to the WTO. 


The EU competition watchdog has intervened controversially in a number of high profile cases involving US companies such as the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger in 1997, the Honeywell–General Electric merger in 2001 and the Microsoft anti-trust probe and record 497m euro fine in March 2004. The growing US budget deficit and the increasingly weak dollar has also provided a certain amount of tension as the dollar continued its drop to record low levels throughout the autumn of 2004.

During his Brussels visit 21-22 February 2005, President Bush explained why he backs a strong EU: "It's in our interests that the European Union work out whatever differences there are and become a continued, viable, strong partner."

On the crucial Middle East peace process, Bush expressed the belief that "Peace is in reach. Therefore, I want to work with the European Union to achieve that objective." 

On Iraq, Bush expressed gratitude towards the NATO partners saying that "26 nations sat around the table saying, let's get the past behind us, and now let's focus on helping the world's newest democracy succeed.  And I appreciated the contributions.  And the NATO training mission is an important mission, because, after all, the success of Iraq depends upon the capacity and the willingness of Iraqis to defend their own selves against terrorists."

On the Kyoto protocol, which the US has refused to sign, Bush said: "We must work together on the way forward. Emerging technologies such as hydrogen-powered vehicles, electricity from renewable energy sources, clean coal technology, will encourage economic growth that is environmentally responsible."

During the visit President of the EU council Jean-Claude Juncker underlined that Europeans and Americans "share the same ambitions for the world", and cited the fight against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the fight against poverty and underdevelopment.

At the EU foreign affairs ministers council on 21 February 2005 the EU also backed an integrated rule-of-law mission for Iraq. It will consist of integrated training in the fields of management and criminal investigation for senior officials and executive staff from the judiciary, the police and the prison services.

At the end of the Bush visit Commission President Barroso said Europe and the United States had reconnected. “I believe that transatlantic relations have turned a corner,” he said. “A new listening partnership is emerging. 

Speaking at  at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques - Science Politique, Paris, in February 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said: "Our work together has only begun. In our time we have an historic opportunity to shape a global balance of power that favors freedom -- and that will therefore deepen and extend the peace. And I use the word "power" broadly, because even more important than military and indeed economic power is the power of ideas, the power of compassion, and the power of hope."

"The agenda of US-EU cooperation is wider than ever, and still growing, along with the European Union itself. We agree on the interwoven threats we face today: Terrorism, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and regional conflicts, and failed states and organized crime. We have had our disagreements. But it is time to turn away from the disagreements of the past. It is time to open a new chapter in our relationship, and a new chapter in our alliance."  

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in December 2004: "We are reaching out to Europe and we hope that Europe will reach out to us. Whatever our differences about the past and about Iraq, we are now looking forward." 

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, January 2005, Commissioner for external relationsBenita Ferrero Waldner, said: "We are deeply committed to the success of multilateral international institutions, starting of course with the United Nations. President Bush’s recent comments on the importance of effective multilateralism are particularly welcome in this context."
"Everyone in Europe wants Iraq to be a democratic, peaceful, and stable country. That is why we have been ready to contribute substantially to Iraq’s reconstruction both politically and financially...The truth is, there are very few areas where we do not share the same goals, and where we would not both benefit from a greater degree of collaboration". 

After the Bush visit French Foreign minister Michel Barnier, said to Le Monde: "George Bush came to Europe shortly after his re-election. That is an important gesture. We now talk more often and more normal. The meeting between the Council and the US president seemed like a natural framework for transatlantic dialogue at its highest level. Without formalising it too much, we should make such meetings more frequent".

Karsten Voigt, co-ordinator for German-American relations of the governing SPD-party(German social deomcrats) said to Deutschlandfunk in February 2005: "During the Cold War we were consuming sucurity, now we are being asked to produce it. During the Cold War Germany was placed in the centre of a global crisis and we were therefor entirely dependent on the US. In terms of security policy Germany must think global, and also act globally", says Voigt and mentions that even if Germany has not send trops, it is helping to train Iraqi policymen and soldiers, and it has also allowed US airplanes to fly over Germany during the war, and US troops are stationed in Germany.      

Charles Grant,  director of the Centre for European Reform, London, writes: "Bush’s second term could turn out more multilateralist than the first, for many of the problems he faces cannot be easily tackled without the help of allies and international organisations...In due course, as Turkey moves closer to the EU, the Caucasus states will become neighbours of the union. Russia still sees these countries as its backyard: it overtly supports anti-democratic forces in Ukraine and Belarus and it illegally
keeps armies in parts of Moldova and Georgia. The US and the EU share a common interest in collaborating to nurture the independence of these countries, as well as democratic standards within them."

CIA report on the shape of the world in 2020 sees trouble ahead for EU's ambitions to become a global player: "The current welfare state is unsustainable and the lack of any economic revitalization could lead to the splintering or, at worst, disintegration of the European Union, undermining its ambitions to play a heavyweight international role.  The EU’s economic growth rate is dragged down by Germany and its restrictive labor laws.  Structural reforms there—and in France and Italy to lesser extents—remain key to whether the EU as a whole can break out of its slow-growth pattern."

A Post-election survey by the German Marshall Fund for the United States reveals that 62 percent of French citizens "disapprove very much" of Bush's foreign policies. Fifty-nine percent of Germans felt the same way. Only 4 percent of French and 3 percent of German participants "approve very much". However, Americans, French, and Germans are in agreement on that the United States could do to improve relations by being more committed to diplomacy and not so fast to use the military. When asked what Europeans could do to improve relations, Americans chose building stronger European military capabilities over contributing troops in Iraq.

Commentator Fred Kempe writes in the Wall Street Journal , January 2005: "Circumstances at the moment favor the trans-Atlanticists. Democratic success in Ukraine provides momentum. Seldom has Washington worked so closely with Brussels on an issue. The Ukraine experience also showed that the EU has grown more hospitable to democratic evangelists: Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, a close American ally and EU member only since May 2004, provided Europe's backbone in Ukraine along with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana...Yet the EU's newest members wonder how seriously they can take Mr. Bush's promises to promote democracy if he looks the other way while his friend Mr. Putin drags Russia in a decisively undemocratic direction."

In his book, Of paradise and power: America versus Europe in the new world orderRobert Kegan, deputy chair of the Project for a New American Century, promotes the notion that Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus".  Kegan is of the opinion that Europe is committed to a world view of “self-contained law and rules of transnational negotiation and co-operation”. This generally non-belligerent approach is constructed not by learning from the lessons of World War I and II (as the EU claims), but rather results from Europe’s profound military weakness, argues Kegan. 

EU US summit in Washington DC,  20 June 2005.

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