At EU milestone, U.S. is focused elsewhereWASHINGTON - It is a fair indication of the state of trans-Atlantic relations that the largest expansion of the European Union, and the one signifying the end of Europe's postwar division, has drawn scant attention in the United States, where the very nature and purpose of the EU remain murky to many.
Perhaps Europe should not take this personally. The recent expansion of NATO was scarcely a major event here. America tends to be a one-issue-at-a-time place, and right now it is coping with two: Iraq and the election. Still, the virtual silence surrounding the EU's addition of 10 members, eight of them once part of the Soviet bloc, reflects a moment of great difficulty.
"The situation has never been so bad in 50 years," Günter Burghardt, the EU ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. "It is a fact of life that America is a hegemonic power, but the question is how that power is used. We need to know that America is open to a confident relationship, not just with certain member states, but with the EU as such."
This assessment reflects the enduring wounds of the Iraq war and particularly the feeling among many European officials that an American administration has determined that its interests may lie more in EU division than in unity, more in forging improvised coalitions of the willing than in honoring a partnership of the wedded.
Of course, large areas of the European-American relationship remain vigorous and will only benefit from an enlargement that brings the fastest-growing economies in Europe into the Union.
Between them, the EU and the United States account for 40 percent of world trade. They are each other's largest trading partners. Business transactions between them run at close to $3 billion a day. When disputes arise in the economic area, over steel or intellectual property, an arbiter exists: the World Trade Organization. The web of shared economic interests is of an inextricable complexity that compels the quest for the resolution of differences and the harmonizing of regulations.
But this sense of common purpose, one that long drove America's broad support of an EU seen as delivering stability and prosperity to a Continent with a debilitating penchant for war, appears to have been lost in the strategic and diplomatic areas.
It is not delight but a measure of dismay that is accompanying the arrival of the Europe "whole and free" sought by the elder George Bush and reiterated as an objective by President George W. Bush, who declared in Warsaw in June 2001: "Our goal is to erase the false lines that have divided Europe for too long."
Europe has worked hard on effacing those divisions. Burghardt noted that the EU has spent "the equivalent of two Marshall Plans" on preparing the countries of Central Europe for membership. More than $80 billion was spent between 1990 and 1999; almost as much again will go into the economies of the new members by 2006. But his sense is that recognition of this effort and its significance is scant in an America whose attention has moved elsewhere.
"The EU delivered on Nov. 9, that is the fall of the Berlin Wall," Burghardt said. "But we got hit by the geopolitical earthquake of Sept. 11."
In his Warsaw speech, almost three months before the Sept. 11 attack, Bush also said, "My nation welcomes the consolidation of European unity, and the stability it brings," adding, "When Europe and America are divided, history tends to tragedy." But division ensued soon enough.
The potential for still further division in dealing with a Europe of 25, including formerly Communist Central European states whose enthusiasm for America is far greater than in the Western part of the Continent, is clearly considerable. But Iraq has been a sobering experience and American officials have dropped the rhetoric of "old" and "new" Europe in favor of a rediscovered pragmatism.
"Whatever the differences over the past year, we know that a Europe that is open, at peace, broadly united and reaching out toward Turkey is in the American interest," an official said.
The reference to Turkey is significant. Faced by the current expansion of the EU, many Americans respond by asking why Turkey is not included. Andrew Moravcsik, a professor of government at Harvard, said that every time he goes to the Pentagon to give a talk about the EU, he is greeted by the cry of "Why won't they let the Turks in?" The question, of course, reflects America's paradigm shift from a focus on uniting Europe to the overriding quest to advance democracy in the Middle East. The admission of Turkey to a core institution of the West like the EU would, in the American view, provide an important example of bridge-building to the Islamic world. It is therefore vital, American officials argue, that the EU decide at the end of this year to begin negotiations on membership.
But the impatience over the EU and Turkey also betrays enduring American misunderstanding over the nature of the EU and the immense complexity and cost of offering membership to a country as big and poor as Turkey.
The depth and extent of integration at the EU, and the surrender of sovereignty involved, remain areas only dimly grasped by most Americans. The notion remains unthinkable that if America, Mexico and Canada were as integrated as EU states it would be possible to have a Mexican sitting in Ottawa setting interest rates for the United States.
What is uncertain, after a deeply divisive year,is how America wants to relate to a larger EU whose very degree of integration will inevitably mean that the new members are obliged to seek shared European positions, despite their American sympathies.
"We know that countries have permanent interests but not permanent friends," said Anthony Gooch, a spokesman for the EU in Washington. "Over the past year, we saw an American administration trying to undermine EU unity. Faced by a new Europe of 450 million people, we will have to see how that attitude evolves."
The best hope seems to be that the immense difficulties in Iraq will ultimately reinforce a sense of the imperative of partnership, moving America away from the doctrine of pre-eminence and pre-emption that has so troubled several European states toward a shared strategy for extending stability into an Islamic world where hostility to the West as a whole has never been stronger.