Bilateral ties challenge single voice of Europe

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Series Details Vol 7, No.11, 15.3.01, p20
Publication Date 15/03/2001
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Date: 15/03/01

By Simon Coss

TRADITIONAL bilateral ties between the Union's 15 member states and the United States often prevent the EU from speaking with one voice in transatlantic talks, observers say.

London's links with Washington perhaps represent the most famous of these fabled 'special relationships', but nearly all of the countries in the Union have tried to make the most of their historical links with the New World.

"The EU has been around for some 50 odd years but US historical ties with Europe go back over 200," said one US official. "We have warm and friendly relationships with all 15 member states."

Experts point out that even the sometimes strained relations between the US and France - often at odds over defence - are built on extremely solid foundations.

"Don't forget that during our war of independence, the French were our allies against the British," said the official.

In more recent times, waves of immigration from Europe have built influential national lobbies in the US. The Italian-American and Irish-American communities are perhaps two of the country's best-known European minorities. The US also has strong cultural links with Spain through the fast-growing Hispanic community that has come to the country from Central and South America.

But other nations are also well represented.

"In Minnesota, for example, you could easily start believing in a Swedish-American special relationship," explains Professor Mike Smith, an expert on transatlantic relations at the UK's University of Loughborough, referring to the large Scandinavian community in the Midwestern state.

But some question whether these cherished bilateral links are evenly balanced, or if Washington often has the upper hand.

Critics of the UK's relationship with the US, for example, say it amounts to little more than London asking "How high?" when Washington says "Jump".

They also argue that individual member states which are too eager to cosy up to Washington can damage efforts to create stronger ties between the US and the EU as a whole.

The European Commission points to efforts to draw up a transatlantic 'open skies' aviation agreement as one example of bilateral relations undermining the European interest.

The open skies talks were designed to increase access to EU and US airports for the two blocs' respective airlines. In the mid-1990s the Commission argued that the way to get the best deal for the Union would be for the executive to negotiate on behalf of all member states. But EU governments instead brokered a series of bilateral deals with Washington.

Commission Vice-President Neil Kinnock, who was transport chief at the time, began legal action against several member states over their open skies deals, saying the agreements created "serious discrimination and distortions of competition".

The Americans, on the other hand, were delighted to negotiate on a piecemeal basis with the Europeans.

"It is hard to see how the Commission could have come up with a better agreement," a US official said. "We have to accept how you in Europe present yourselves and move forward on that basis."

Article forms part of a survey on EU-US relations.

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