- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

BRUSSELS — A team of geologists recently discovered that the Atlantic Ocean is getting wider each year as the European and North American plates gradually inch away from each other.

In politics too, it often seems the United States and the European Union are oceans apart.

Relations between Brussels and Washington were already strained at the beginning of 2003 owing to differences over climate change, the International Criminal Court, genetically modified crops, farm subsidies and steel tariffs.

But it was President Bush’s decision to attack Iraq that plunged the trans-Atlantic relationship into its deepest crisis since the Suez Canal standoff in 1956.

Although most European countries actually supported the U.S. stance against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, many did so reluctantly and in the teeth of overwhelming public opposition.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there was mutual incomprehension and disbelief. France, Germany and Russia — the leaders of Europe’s antiwar camp — could not understand why the United States chose to attack a regime that was finally allowing weapons inspectors to do their work.

Washington, on the other hand, refused to believe Europe could be so complacent about a threat on its doorstep.

For a brief period in the spring, as hundreds of thousands of Europeans marched against “Yankee Imperialism” and French fries were renamed “freedom fries” in the U.S. Congress, it looked as though the trans-Atlantic relationship was on the rocks.

And then a strange thing happened. Like many couples that have stared into the abyss, the United States and the EU realized they could not live without each other.

When Jacques Chirac, the French president and antiwar ringleader, shook hands with his American counterpart at the Group of Eight summit in Evian, France, in June, it was hardly a reaffirmation of wedding vows, but it signaled to the rest of the world that it was time to put past squabbles behind and focus on the future.

“We can have our disagreements, but that does not mean we have to be disagreeable to each other,” said Mr. Bush after a brief tete-a tete with Mr. Chirac at the summit in France.

Mood music helps, but cold economic data explains why Europe and America are fated to be friends.

The United States and the EU produce more than half of the world’s wealth and account for some 40 percent of global trade.

Thirteen million jobs and more than $3 billion a day of trade and investment are dependent on tight trans-Atlantic bonds.

And the two partners’ economies are so intertwined that 60 percent of all foreign investment in the United States comes from the EU and three-quarters of Europe’s investment abroad is in the United States.

On foreign-policy issues, there is clearly a gulf between the U.S. approach and the EU stance. But again, the differences are often exaggerated.

Despite the shouting match between Paris, Berlin and Washington over Iraq, most European states backed the U.S. decision to attack Baghdad and British, Polish, Danish, Spanish and Dutch troops are currently involved in peacekeeping duties in the war-torn state.

In Afghanistan, there are now more European than American soldiers and EU taxpayers have picked up the lion’s share of the reconstruction bill — as they have done in the Balkans and elsewhere.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States and the EU are partners in the four-stage “road map” to Palestinian independence, which they consider the only viable hope for peace in the region.

And to the delight of Washington, the Brussels-based bloc toughened its stance on Iran and Cuba during the course of 2003, warning the former to submit to nuclear inspections or see lucrative trade talks halted and slapping mild diplomatic sanctions on the latter.

There is still lingering resentment on both sides of the Atlantic about the Iraq war — not helped by Mr. Bush’s decision to exclude France, Germany and Russia from bidding for reconstruction projects in the oil-rich state.

But each has signaled willingness to forgive some of Iraq’s debt from the days of Saddam.

The frostiness is likely to fade in 2004 as the conflict becomes a distant memory and the Bush administration attempts to focus on domestic issues ahead of presidential elections in November.

It is no secret that many top decision-makers in Brussels and other capitals in “old Europe” would prefer to see Mr. Bush go away.

But the leaders of Britain, Italy, Spain and most Eastern European countries are beginning to feel comfortable with the straight-talking Texan.

The arrival of eight former communist countries in May will make the EU more pro-NATO, more pro-American and more free-market.

This may not please Paris and Berlin, but it should go a long way toward calming the waters between Europe and the United States.

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