Europe still sees US as greatest threat to stability

By John Thornhill in Paris, Daniel Dombey in Brussels and Edward Alden in Washington

Financial Times

Published: June 19 2006

Europeans remain deeply suspicious of US foreign policy in spite of President George W. Bush’s concerted attempts since the start of his second term to improve transatlantic relations.

In a Harris opinion poll, published on the eve of Mr Bush’s latest visit to Europe this week, 36 per cent of respondents identify the US as the greatest threat to global stability.

The poll, conducted in association with the FT, questioned a representative sample of 5,000 people in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain on a range of issues. Thirty per cent of respondents named Iran as the greatest threat to global stability, with 18 per cent selecting China.

Guillaume Parmentier, director of the Paris-based French Centre on the US, said such polls reflected the lingering ill will caused by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but tended to obscure better co-operation between the US and Europe over a number of issues, such as Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iran.

“At the official level, transatlantic relations are infinitely better than they have been even if the underlying differences over how to manage international crises and international problems have not been solved,” Mr Parmentier said.

At a US-European Union summit in Vienna on Wednesday, Mr Bush is likely to press for full payment of the billions of dollars in aid pledged by Europe for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of the nearly $14bn (£7.6bn, €11bn) pledged by all countries at donors’ conferences, less than $4bn has been disbursed. Bob Kimmitt, deputy Treasury secretary, and Phil Zelikow, a top aide to Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, are also being sent separately to Europe and the Middle East to press the issue.

European leaders are expected to call on Mr Bush to close the detention centre at Guantánamo bay in Cuba, where three prisoners recently killed themselves.

Ursula Plassnik, Austria’s foreign minister, who is one of the summit’s hosts, said last week there was “no doubt” that the issue would be raised.

“Nobody can be placed in a legal vacuum,” Ms Plassnik said. “This does not correspond to our understanding of human rights.”

The meeting in Vienna has been characterised by difficulty in agreeing texts; European officials say positions taken by the US State Department were subsequently overruled by the National Security Council. But the official statement from the summit will set out the principles for strategic co-operation on energy security, including diversification of energy supplies and market-based energy security policies.

The FT Harris poll found that the French were the most pessimistic Europeans, while Spaniards were most likely to think their country is heading in the right direction and the British believe it is too easy for foreign companies to take over businesses in their country.

The survey also revealed a sharp division of opinions over nuclear power. The strongest support comes in Italy, France and the UK while a majority of Spanish and German respondents oppose the idea.