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Transatlantic Turbulence Reaches New Low

Relations between the United States and Europe have hit rock bottom since President George Bush took office. A deep rift has emerged over a string of issues from trade to terrorism to the UN war crimes court.


A picture of cordiality before the latest transatlantic rows - President George Bush with German President Johannes Rau in Berlin in May, 2002

When President George Bush arrived in Europe in May under clear blue skies to garner support for his war on terrorism, it seemed that not a single dark cloud would mar what appeared a strained yet cordial transatlantic relationship.

Just two months later, the same transatlantic relationship has gone from "cordial" to "sour" as a fallout over a series of recent thorny issues have added to gathering storm clouds over US-European relations.

Tensions over ICC buffet fragile US-European Ties

The latest row over the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court (ICC) has delivered a strong blow to an already shaky transatlantic relationship.

Europeans are outraged at what they see as a US attempt to emasculate the newly established International Court, by demanding judicial immunity for its own soldiers and peacekeepers. The US has further raised European hackles with Washington threatening to veto a UN police mission in Bosnia.

At a parliamentary conference of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in Berlin on Saturday, several German politicians including the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer strongly criticised the US' blocking stance towards the International Criminal Court.

Fischer said that the US was defeating the very purpose of the court which was to ensure that individuals accused of committing grave crimes against humanity would not get away with impunity.

US criticism growing in Europe

Fischer’s words echo a general wave of US criticism sweeping across the European Union and especially within the European media.

Earlier this year, the European Union Commissioner for External Affairs, Chris Patten told the Guardian newspaper that he hoped the United States wouldn't go into "unilateralist overdrive".

Though few doubt that US criticism in Europe has been especially fuelled by the latest transatlantic dispute over the International Criminal Court, Bush's long-awaited Middle East policy speech last month which tilted in Israel's favour also played a role in prompting the latest wave of US criticism in Europe.

Europeans exasperated by Bush's Mid-East proposals

Bush’s proposal of replacing Palestinian President Yasser Arafat by leaders "not compromised by terror" was officially met with caution and politeness by EU leaders, who stressed the positive elements of his support for a Palestinian state.

But privately, several EU leaders in interviews with the news agency Reuters, said they were dismayed at the absence of US attempts to restrain Israeli forces occupying West Bank cities or back an international peace conference, to which Washington had previously agreed.

"America is so powerful and touchy now that no one wants to contradict Bush publicly", one EU diplomat said.

Differences have also arisen over the EU’s funding of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority even as the US denounces it.

Even Britain, Washington’s closest European ally, has been notably unsupportive of Bush’s call to replace Arafat, saying it was up to the Palestinians to choose their leaders.

Two different ways of looking at the world

Political analysts believe that the two latest rifts between the US and Europe have underlined the fundamental differences in US and European perspectives of viewing the world, specifically after the September 11 terrorist attacks last year in New York.

In many American eyes, Europeans appear cowardly in the "war against terrorism", seek to restrain Washington and are complacent about threats from so-called "rogue states" suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.

For their part, several Europeans believe that Washington is only keen to eradicate the symptoms of terror rather than get to the root of it by branding potentially hostile nations an "axis of evil" and see "unilateralist" hawks in the US administration seeking to tear up the international rule-book.

Following Bush's controversial State of the Union Speech in February this year, French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine said in an interview with France Inter, "We are currently threatened by a simplified approach which reduces all problems of the world to the mere struggle against terrorism. The Americans are acting on a unilateral basis, without consulting anyone else, and their decisions are guided exclusively by their own individual views and interests."

Further, European leaders are also wary about an American military attack on Iraq to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, fearing that this would destabilise the region and deflect attention from the Israel-Palestinian conflict which is more pressing.

String of niggling disputes plague transatlantic relations

Away from the blatant differences related to the "war on terrorism", an array of other disagreements have continued to hobble the transatlantic relationship.

Specific clashes include a ban on anti-personnel land mines, a comprehensive test ban treaty, and more famously, the Kyoto treaty on climate change – all of which are supported in Europe and opposed by the US.

To make matters worse, trade disputes over US steel tariffs, export and farm subsidies and EU efforts to obstruct the import of genetically-modified foods make the gap between America and Europe a yawning one.

"It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world", Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in the journal "Policy Review".

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