U.S. supports Europe, NATO chief assertsBERLIN Despite the overwhelming rejection by France and the Netherlands of the European Union's constitution and the undermining of the bloc's defense and security ambitions, the United States is firmly committed to a strong and united Europe, NATO's top civilian official said Monday in an interview.
"The Bush administration wants to see Europe as a strong partner," said Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, upon returning from talks in Washington with President George W. Bush and members of his administration. "It is clear there is no interest in the U.S. in seeing a Europe which is weakened, less efficient and less effective."
If so, it signals a change of direction by an administration that during its first term played European countries against each other as Washington sought support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The strategy of dividing Europe threw into question a commitment by Washington to a united Europe that had been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy since 1945.
De Hoop Scheffer, however, said there was now a pragmatic attitude in the U.S. toward the trans-Atlantic relationship in general and Europe in particular.
"NATO does need a strong Europe," said de Hoop Scheffer, who was appointed NATO chief in early 2004, as the U.S.-led alliance was emerging from the crisis caused by divisions over the war in Iraq.
"The need for a strong Europe has not changed since the no votes in France and the Netherlands," de Hoop Scheffer said. "I realize it is very serious and that the EU will enter a period when it will have to do some reflecting on what happened in France. It is very important that in the areas of defense and security, Europe will further integrate."
But he warned against Europe becoming a competitor to the 26-member NATO.
"As a counterweight to the U.S., the EU will not work because the result will be a split Europe, as we have seen in the past," said de Hoop Scheffer, a former foreign minister of the Netherlands. "We need European integration that develops in parallel with NATO. I repeat, as a counterweight it will simply not work."
One reason the U.S. administration appears determined to support, at least for now, a stronger Europe is its need for Europeans to share more of the burden when it comes to peacekeeping missions and security roles.
"Europe can and should be able to take a larger share of the burden," de Hoop Scheffer said. "That is, of course, in America's interests."
He had no doubt that Europeans also need the U.S. to back EU diplomatic initiatives such as the one involving Iran, in which Britain, France and Germany have for months been negotiating a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
"Everybody knows that it is of the utmost importance that the United States puts its full weight behind those talks," de Hoop Scheffer said. "The U.S. and the EU need each other in the Middle East, Iraq. For the U.S., it is of the utmost importance that the EU is in full support for a free and democratic Iraq, together with the international community. It is clear that on either side of the Atlantic Ocean - the U.S. and Canadians on the one hand, and the European on the other -they need each other even more so today."
Some Europeans remain skeptical that the U.S. is committed to a stronger Europe. Fueling such skepticism, in particular, is the idea that Washington still supports "coalitions of the willing" as an option rather than automatically turning to NATO. De Hoop Scheffer disagrees.
"Not every single ally will always participate in every single NATO mission," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Look at the Iraqi training mission for officers. All the countries politically endorse what we are doing. Some do the training inside, others outside. My bottom line is that the discussion of coalitions of the willing, as far as I am concerned, is finished. As long as the mission or operation of NATO is supported politically by all 26 allies, that is the important thing."
Still, the pendulum that swings from cooperation and trust to competition and rivalry between NATO and the EU could soon be tested as both organizations develop specialized and flexible military units capable of being deployed at short notice and being dropped into conflicts anywhere in the world.
The EU has its own emerging rapid reaction forces or special high-combat "battle groups." These battle groups, in which France and Britain play the leading role, are designed to put real teeth in European defense and security policies.
NATO's rapid response force appears similar to the EU's. When asked whether the two forces were competitors and strained national defense budgets, de Hoop Scheffer said no.
"No defense minister can afford to line up soldiers with the EU label on its sleeve and another with a NATO label on the sleeve," de Hoop Scheffer said. "That is the reason why we need this cooperation. Of course we need a schedule of rotation for the battle groups and the NATO response force, otherwise we will have a conflict. That's the reason why we talk to each other."