Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Is the EU really strong?

From Dallas News: Increasingly, when President Bush and other officials speak to Europe, they don't talk to Great Britain, France, Germany or any other individual country.

They speak instead to 25 countries welded into one mega-government, the European Union – certainly an economic competitor to the United States and perhaps a political one as well.

Brussels-based "Eurocrats" have blocked U.S.-based mergers that violated EU antitrust laws and forced American businesses to comply with European environmental standards.

The euro, which didn't exist before 2002, is now stronger than the American dollar, a condition that could lead to higher interest rates in the United States.

In the political sphere, the EU is trying to cut a deal to halt Iran's alleged nuclear program, partly to stave off the threat of American force; the EU is also expected to lift a ban on arms sales to China, despite American objections.

While some government officials view the European Union warily – another source of the recent trans-Atlantic rift – Mr. Bush made meetings with European Union officials a centerpiece of this week's fence-mending trip.

"My government ... wants the European project to succeed," Mr. Bush said after meeting with EU officials at their Brussels headquarters. "It's in our interest that Europe be strong."

The rise of the EU has made it a hot topic among foreign policy pundits, the subject of books and articles comparing European integration to the union of American states across the Atlantic.

In his new book, T.R. Reid notes that the EU now has more people, more wealth and more trade than the United States. It also builds good will by providing more foreign aid than America.

"The result is global economic and political clout that makes the European Union exactly what its leaders want it to be: a second superpower that can stand on equal footing with the United States," Mr. Reid wrote in The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy.

Power drain

To which skeptics say, not so fast.

Economic growth in many EU nations remains stagnant, analysts point out, a "Euro-sclerosis" that also reflects aging populations. EU countries such as Italy are actually losing populations.

Immigration is a potential solution, but many Europeans are averse to the idea, particularly when the newcomers are Muslims. The cultural divide between Muslims and Christians is the backdrop as the EU considers its latest applicant, Turkey.

Some analysts also point out that the EU could never become a major power as long as the United States provides most of its defense. They say the Europeans' concept of "soft power," based on economic and cultural values, has its limits, especially in dealing with outlaw regimes.

"It's a competitor, it's a rival, but it's not an emerging economic superpower," said Fred Siegel, a history professor at the Cooper Union in New York City.

There are also lingering, if no longer violent, internal rivalries in Europe, other analysts said.

Some smaller nations, particularly in Eastern Europe, resent what they consider French and German attempts to dominate the group. Great Britain has also tangled with France and Germany, mainly over Iraq, as it tries to be a bridge between the United States and the EU.

"I'm skeptical as to whether any of this is workable in the long run," Mr. Siegel said.

It may be worth noting that the EU dubbed its modern new office complex the "Justus Lipsius Building." Leaders picked a Latin name to avoid having to make a choice among all European languages.

U.S. given the business

That said, the European Union is not without power. Just ask General Electric, which saw its merger with Honeywell blocked by EU antitrust laws. Microsoft, meanwhile, is appealing an EU antitrust fine of $648 million.

And Airbus, with strong EU backing, is challenging Boeing in the business of building airplanes worldwide.

In the age of globalization, American companies that want to do business in Europe – and there are a lot of them – have to abide by EU rules. That's why soft drinks are sold in 2-liter bottles.
Jeremy Rifkin, author of The European Dream: How Europe's Vision Of The Future Is Quietly Eclipsing The American Dream, said many Americans don't understand the EU because "there's no precedent for it."

As opposed to the American model of top down, command and control management, Mr. Rifkin called the EU an example of "network politics."

"No one institution can dominate, no one single country can dominate the group," Mr. Rifkin said. "You have to find a way to optimize the group to get something passed."

Mr. Rifkin and others said most of the world supports the EU's goals of human rights, sustainable development and peace.

The idea of a European Union came partly from one of Mr. Bush's heroes, the legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He called for a "United States of Europe" shortly after World War II shattered the continent.

Mr. Bush also spoke with NATO on this trip, but the United States basically built that Cold War organization. The visits with the European Union drew more interest from continental governments and foreign policy analysts.

The latter pointed out that, for all the recent happy talk between Mr. Bush and EU officials, the United States remains opposed to many items that Europeans regard as sacrosanct. They include the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto global warming agreement.

The two also clash frequently over tariffs and trade barriers, particularly involving agricultural products.

Mr. Bush continues to defend the invasion of Iraq, which still draws protests throughout Europe. Many Europeans fear more American military action, in Iran, Syria or both.

"A new style and a new commitment to working with a united Europe will only buy you so much," said the Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder, co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy .

Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy specialist at Georgetown University, said the EU's growing strength will at least change the way diplomacy is conducted. A reconstituted American-European partnership, he said, "probably won't look like the good old days."

"It will probably be more of a U.S.-EU partnership than the United States partnering with individual countries," Mr. Kupchan said. "They will have to learn to agree to disagree. Because they will disagree."