The U.S. Has a Stake in Europe’s Success

James B. Steinberg and
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

October 3, 2003

On Saturday, the European Union’s 15 member states, along with the 10 countries that will join the EU next May, will launch an Intergovernmental Conference to debate the future political shape of the continent.

If all goes according to plan, by the end of the year the leaders of these countries will adopt an EU constitution and bill of rights, create the new posts of EU president and foreign minister, and give the Union formal legal standing. They will also expand the EU’s powers over criminal law and immigration affairs and make much more use of majority voting in conducting daily business.

With thousands of U.S. troops under fire in Iraq and a presidential election coming up, Americans may be forgiven for not paying much attention to all this—debates about European integration make even most Europeans’ eyes glaze over. But Americans would do well to start paying attention. While Washington does not have a seat at the table, it does have a voice, as well as a huge stake in the outcome of Europe’s constitutional debate.

To the extent that Americans have followed EU developments at all, it has been with a cautious, skeptical eye. Especially after the bruising debates over Iraq last year, talk of an emerging European “superstate” with its own flag, anthem, currency, president and foreign minister—all enshrined in a constitution drafted under the leadership of a former French president—does not sound reassuring. The Bush administration prefers to deal bilaterally with European states more amenable to American positions—like Britain, Spain or Poland—than it does with a more united Europe it might not control. Indeed, the administration’s whole approach to Europe has been a version of divide and conquer—ignore the collective Union as much as possible, ostracize and punish critics, and reserve respectful treatment for those willing to follow the American lead. Hostility toward the European project, however, is even more misguided than indifference.

First, the proposed European constitution is not the bold move toward a “United States of Europe” that some hoped for and others feared. It brings some order to the EU’s scattered treaties, more clearly sets forth the fundamental rights of EU citizens, and makes an awkward, ineffective decision-making structure marginally more coherent. EU symbols like a flag and an anthem have existed for years, and EU law has always taken precedence over national laws. The new posts of president and foreign minister are not designed to be very powerful and will not take power away from the elected leaders of the EU member states.

The United States, moreover, has a strong national interest in a Europe that can be a more effective partner. Unless Americans really believe that they can meet all global challenges alone, more efficient European defense spending and foreign policy decision-making is clearly in the American interest. Advances in immigration policy and judicial cooperation will also make Europe a more effective partner in the war on terrorism.

Critics worry that the new Europe will be driven by a Franco-German agenda hostile to American aims. But there is little reason to believe this—unless arrogant U.S. foreign policies create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The idea of a European “counterweight” to the United States never took hold in the past, and it is hard to see why the addition of 10 Atlanticist countries in Central and Eastern Europe into the mix will change this. Even during the Iraq debate last year, despite widespread public hostility to the war in Europe, the overwhelming majority of EU members and prospective members backed the United States. Their demonstrates that most European governments still understand the value of American leadership and a strong trans-Atlantic bond.

Only Europeans can sustain the Union and drive it forward. But American support for the core goals of European integration has always been important, and remains so. In seeking to divide Europe to further its short-term policy interests, the Bush administration is effectively breaking with over 50 years of American support for European integration. American policy underpinned European efforts that have stabilized the continent and created a zone of prosperity that it is now by far America’s largest trading and investment partner.

The Bush administration should tell our friends in Europe that we want to see the European constitutional process succeed, and should stop doing all it can to deepen, rather than smooth over, Europe’s internal divisions.