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Informal General Affairs and External Relations Council 2-3/5/03: Contribution on the issue of EU-USA Relations by Professor A. A. Fatouros

by A. A. Fatouros, emeritus professor of international law,
University of Athens

1. The relations between the European Union and the United States are going today through a difficult period, one might even say, a crisis. While in international affairs policy differences between states (or groups of states) are commonplace, this particular crisis exhibits several special features that give to it added importance and meaning. To understand it and be thereby able better to cope with it, it is necessary to place it in its proper context.
2. To begin with, three particular elements of special character and importance colour and exacerbate the present situation.

First, the current policy conflicts with the United States have arisen at a time when the European Union has not yet fully developed its foreign policy apparatus (rules, procedures and approaches). In the process of completing  its political and economic integration, however, it has reached the stage where such a development is among its top immediate priorities. A this point, the European foreign and defence policy area is therefore particularly sensitive, if not vulnerable, and the current crisis with the United States  raises difficult institutional problems for the European Union and involves fundamental structural questions.

A second element of the situation is the particular policy style of the current US administration, that is to say, the manner and rhetoric in which policies and positions are advanced and implemented. Partly as a consequence of the September 11 events, which have promoted a public sense of insecurity, the US Government  tends to stress and overclarify differences and conflicts in approaches and policies in order unequivocally to reaffirm the country’s strength and ability to deal with external threats.

Finally, it is significant that a war is involved. The use of armed force remains the most sensitive of issues among nations, even where force is not directed at the countries immediately concerned. In combination with the two factors just mentioned, this tends to bring to a head the policy differences and the reactions to them.

3.   It is, however, significant that the differences in question involve, not so much, or at least not primarily, policies towards one another (i.e., US policies concerning the EU and EU policies concerning the US), but policies towards other countries or towards the international community at large. Since the US and the EU are important world-wide actors, each of them is affected by policies directed at and primarily concerned with other countries and regions. While there is no lack of bilateral policy conflicts between them, especially in economic matters (e.g., US steel tariffs or EU import polices), these conflicts are not the ones that have led to the current “crisis”.

4. A first question that arises is whether and how far the current “crisis” reflects a fundamental change in the international situation, which may lead to long-term conflicts between the basic interests – and thereby the policies -- of the United States and the European Union, or is merely a temporary problem reflecting the particular attitudes and policies of specific governments at the present time. The elements identified above (para. 2) suggest that, while significant world changes may have occurred (see below, para. 6-7),  the intensity of the present crisis between the US and the EU may largely be due to the coincidence of  factors which are not long-term or permanent, especially, the current stage of European integration and the particular style of the current US administration. More fundamental factors are likely at play, as well, pointing to possible longer-term conflict potential, but the role of the “accidental” elements mentioned cannot be gainsaid.

5. In view of the above, one might start by suggesting that, in the case at hand, patience and a willingness to wait out the policies of particular governments may be indicated in the first place. The European Union and its member states should adopt a firm position on the questions at issue between them and the United States, keeping in mind that, as the recent past has shown, long-term interests and policies of the two parties are more likely to be in harmony  than to conflict and that a deadlock between the US and the EU is in nobody’s interest. The EU should also try to ensure at the very least that the decisions and actions to be reached should not foreclose future movement in desired directions.

6. Such prescriptions, however, while valid as far as they go, disregard the actual character of the problem at hand and, indeed, do not take adequately into account the US positions that have led to the current crisis, nor in fact the responses of the states that have opposed them. It should be recalled that the argument over Iraq has to do primarily with the role of international, multilateral institutions and procedures, mainly those of the United Nations. The US position has been that the current world situation and the problems that must be confronted today (post 9/11) cannot be adequately addressed by the existing UN structures and procedures. Opposing states have essentially argued, not so much that UN procedures are the most appropriate for current conditions, but that they are all we have and must be made to serve.  

7. It would seem to follow that the real challenge for the EU (and its members) is to address the actual problem, to direct its institutional imagination, the imagination it has successfully used in the past and is now using to devise its own institutions and their evolution, to formulate proposals for the creation of international structures more appropriate for the times than those constructed after the Second World War  -- or to the improvement of the existing structures. Up to now the EU as such (regardless of legal niceties) has not been an important participant in multilateral (universal) international processes. This is due to a number of reasons, some of them legal or institutional, some political. It would seem that it is high time for the EU and its member states to disregard formal considerations (e.g., the fact that the EU is not a member of the UN) and to seek to address the real problems of their international position (and thereby those of their relations with the United States) directly. The likely diversity of views within the European Union itself is in this context an advantage, because it allows for a first debate and  makes extreme or dogmatic positions rather unlikely. Such a task would moreover give the EU an opportunity to recruit other states and groups of states (including, why not, the United States itself) to help in the invention of new multilateral structures and procedures.











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