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How the US views the European crisis

15 July 2005

The failure of the EU constitution in the referendums in France and the Netherlands has met with three types of responses in America: disappointment, satisfaction and ignorance. Most of the Americans who care about European affairs have not welcomed the failure. This view has also apparently prevailed in the White House. In the months following the re-election of President Bush, Washington’s attitude towards the EU improved, with the President making several pronouncements in support of European integration, albeit stopping short of explicitly endorsing the constitution, although an early draft of the President’s address during his February tour of Europe included a direct endorsement of it. Whilst the relevant phrases were eventually removed from the President’s speech, this was due to Washington’s weariness of being perceived as meddling in the EU’s internal affairs.
Washington’s largely positive view of the constitution has been motivated by a number of cultural and strategic considerations. A number of opinion polls have consistently shown that Americans generally support a stronger and more globally responsible EU. It has also been a prevailing view amongst the majority of the US’s foreign policy élite, both Democrat and Republican, that a stronger EU would be more open and more free-market oriented, and that as such it would constitute a useful partner in addressing global security issues. Much of this view relies on the assumption that an integrated Europe would be willing and capable of releasing the US from some of its international responsibilities, be it in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq.
Consequently, the current European crisis is largely seen in the US as having negative implications for transatlantic burden-sharing and the promotion of stability in areas vital to US interests. In particular, the US is concerned about the likely slow-down of EU enlargement to Turkey and the decreasing chances of providing Ukraine and Moldova with a clear prospect of membership in the foreseeable future. Many in the US also expect that a Europe in crisis is likely to turn introvert and selfish.
However, the small but vocal minority of experts who see the failure of the constitution as conducive to US interests contradict the above views. For example, the influential Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have argued against the US’s endorsement of the constitution. Whilst there are some subtle differences in the views expressed by these two think tanks, they have both argued that the constitution would have produced an EU that was likely to counterbalance rather than cooperate with the US. The Heritage Foundation has long argued against the US’s support for European integration and in favour of Washington embarking on a policy of dividing Europeans. The conservative agenda pursued by the AEI is subtler. For example, David Frum of the AEI argues that the emergence of a strong Europe would be desirable from the US’s point of view as long as the European project was limited to economic integration. However, he sees the constitution as being weak in promoting economic liberalisation but strong on advancing political centralism, the latter being undesirable from his point of view.
Both the Heritage Foundation and the AEI have objected particularly to those parts of the constitution that strengthen the EU’s external role. They argue that, if the document entered into force, transatlantic relations would suffer and anti-Americanism would be promoted by Brussels as a way of creating a common European identity.
The third type of reaction from Washington has been indifference and oblivion, which has probably been most widespread among foreign policy circles. Many Americans have simply had no knowledge and no views on the constitution. In fact, it has not been uncommon that even the US officials who work in Europe have no appreciation of the likely implications of the constitution for the EU’s external role and transatlantic cooperation.
The endorsement of the constitution by the majority of those Americans who have had an opinion on the matter, Washington’s discreet support and the limited appeal of the anti-constitution minority are undoubtedly good news for transatlantic relations. However, the fact that most Americans have held no view on the constitution should be a cause for concern. It is not unlikely, for example, that should the ratification crisis continue, the views of the current conservative minority may become more acceptable to mainstream opinion as offering simple and clear answers to what many Americans may come to see as ‘this European mess’. There is therefore no room for complacency and it is clear that much work remains to be done to strengthen the effectiveness of the EU’s public diplomacy across the Atlantic.