Treading carefully in trans–Atlantic relations

By Lee Hamilton
Jun 30 2008

 On June 12, the people of Ireland defeated a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which torpedoed, for now, the latest attempt at furthering European integration.

Following the Dutch and French rejection of the European Union constitution in 2005, Ireland's vote indicates that Europeans are not comfortable with the vision of the EU their leaders have proposed. Reconciling Europe's supranational institutions with its national components remains difficult, but the EU must find a way to reform its institutions in accord with its citizenry's expectations.

Rising from the ashes of two world wars that took the lives of more than 60 million people, Western Europe, especially France and West Germany, sought to replace military confrontation with economic integration, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951.

Fifty–seven years later, the EU (the ECSC's descendant) is huge (27 members), highly diversified (23 official languages), and has largely succeeded in promoting economic cooperation (the common market and a single currency), political stability, and democracy, especially in former Warsaw Pact states.

It's the world's largest economic bloc with a GDP of $16 trillion, and its once–lethargic economies are growing faster than America's with lower budget deficits. The Euro continues to appreciate against the dollar, unemployment is falling, and the EU is reducing its dependence on foreign energy.

Despite longtime U.S. support for European integration, there are real differences over: Iraq, the broader Middle East, the death penalty, and climate change, among others. But keeping trans–Atlantic relations in good order is a strategic interest of the highest importance for both partners.

Germany and France are among Iran's four largest import–partners. While the U.S. should engage Iran directly for diplomatic non–proliferation efforts to succeed, transatlantic coordination is essential.

Terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, London and Madrid reveal that a transnational threat demands a coordinated multinational response.

The NATO mission in Afghanistan is the single greatest test for U.S.–European relations. There is no quick fix to Afghanistan's problems. America and its NATO allies should make a firm long–term commitment to helping Afghanis build a unified and peaceful country that is not a safe&150;haven for terrorists.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's expressed interest in re–integrating France into NATO's military command reflects the alliance's continued vitality in the post–Cold War world, and the fact that the EU and NATO can and should complement each other.

In Kosovo, the U.S. should support the EU in its efforts to foster sustainable peace. And any discussion of the Balkans raises the question of defining Europe's borders.

Turkey's increasingly dynamic economy, its vibrant democracy, and its growing clout in foreign affairs illustrate its tremendous value as an ally. The U.S. would welcome Turkey's further integration into the EU, but many Europeans express reluctance or outright opposition.

Despite these challenges, the future of U.S.–European relations is not bleak. Our alliance is rooted in common values, interests, and strong economic ties, including the world's largest bilateral trade relationship, measuring roughly $3 trillion in goods and services.


(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)