Bush II could be good for Europe

By Wolfgang Munchau

Financial Times

Published: November 8 2004

If there is one man capable of making a European feel truly European, it is not President Jacques Chirac of France or Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany. It is George W. Bush.

The re-elected president needs only to open his mouth to remind your average European of the big cultural, moral and political divide that runs through the Atlantic. Until last week, many Europeans mistakenly assumed that Mr Bush's election four years ago had been an aberration - the consequence of some freak historical accident or electoral sleight of hand. They believed a victory by John Kerry would signal a return to normality. Since Tuesday, it has become painfully clear to them that the problem is not Mr Bush himself but the people who keep electing him. In other words, it is structural, not cyclical.

Therein lies an opportunity. Mr Bush may not, from the point of view of Europeans, be good for transatlantic relations. But he may prove to be a catalyst for the European Union to embrace a common foreign and security policy.

Mr Bush's unilateralism has divided Europe and made ordinary Europeans aware of their vulnerability. It has also made the principle of national sovereignty in foreign policy far less attractive, given the impotence of national foreign policy in the run-up to the Iraq war. If European governments persist in their old foreign-policy ways, Mr Bush and the neo-conservatives in his administration may once again succeed in dividing the continent.

This is primarily an argument about popular opinion, not about the type of thinking that prevails among EU governments and institutions. These have long seen US support as instrumental in facilitating European integration. Though it is a view that is starting to wane, Mr Bush's staunchest European allies - notably Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, the British and Italian prime ministers - will have little truck with anything smacking of anti-Americanism. In other European countries, politicians have been more willing to embrace public opinion, which is why public hostility towards the US in general and Mr Bush in particular is significant.

Had Mr Kerry won, Europeans might have been tempted to cling to the old transatlantic certainties. Mr Bush's re-election will accelerate change. It should, for example, make it easier for pro-European politicians to sell to voters the as yet unratified constitutional treaty, which will be put to referendums in several member states.

Important changes introduced by the constitution include the creation of the post of European foreign minister and the establishment of a diplomatic service. This is a limited step towards a common foreign policy, especially considering that member states retain a national veto. With Mr Bush back in the White House, ordinary Europeans may well find such a step more desirable than they would have done had Mr Kerry been elected.

Among France's Gaullists, Mr Bush's re-election has predictably led to calls to establish a political counterweight to the US. This is an unfortunate turn of phrase because of its anti-American resonance. But more importantly, a counterweight by itself is not a sensible objective. A more positive definition is needed, one that sets out in detail what this counterweight would do. That will require Europeans to think more strategically. In the past, they have tended to define foreign policy mainly in terms of relationships.

Much has been written about how Europe needs a more coherent Middle East strategy. Equally important is the need to develop a plan for Asia, especially China. French and German diplomacy towards China has focused almost exclusively on commercial relations. It is important to widen this to cover other areas, such as security co-operation and perhaps education.

The most pressing need is a strategy to deal with a sharp decline in the dollar. With a US trade deficit now heading for 6 per cent of gross domestic product, Europe is facing the grim prospect of having to shoulder most of the adjustment resulting from a falling dollar, unless it can reach some political agreement with several Asian countries, including China.

Europe will not become a military superpower on the scale of the US. But it is an economic power, and its external relations will reflect that fact.

There are exciting times ahead for European foreign policy. It would perhaps be going too far to say that Europeans should welcome Mr Bush's re-election. But they could try to make the most out of it, by formulating distinct European strategies, based on a distinct set of European values. Politically, it should be easier to do this now than before.

In the pre-Bush era, these aspirations might have been dismissed as a naive and dangerous European dream. It is still a dream. Whether it is dangerous depends on your point of view. But perhaps it is not quite as naive as it once seemed.