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The US Takes a Back Seat

An American visitor today leaves Europe with an impression that transatlantic ties are loosening. European nations are concentrating on restructuring their continent, and Washington is largely a bystander.

The current focus of debate is the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and the introduction of a Europe-wide currency - the euro. Although primarily financial, the move is seen as the next major step toward a more politically integrated continent. The debate promises to be long and intense.

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Admission to the EMU requires each nation to reduce public debt to 3 percent of gross national product (GNP), a difficult target for many countries. President Jacques Chirac of France has called for new parliamentary elections, reportedly to strengthen his hand to meet these conditions. But belt tightening will not be easy in a nation with 12 percent unemployment.

Similarly, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has announced his intention to seek reelection to ensure his country's acceptance of the euro. Yet even in Germany, doubts exist about replacing the strong German mark with a weaker European currency.

In Britain, the pound is a mark of national sovereignty, economic strength, and pride. Yielding it to an uncertain continental structure and to "bureaucrats in Brussels" awakens strong opposition. The issue split the Conservative Party in the last election, a factor in Labour's overwhelming victory.

In this atmosphere, Washington's concerns take second place. For half a century, the US link has been vital in postwar reconstruction and in security cooperation. Many in Europe still see the US presence as a balance against the rise of an aggressively dominant power. But American pressures also create embarrassment and resentment.

Embarrassment stems from acknowledging Europe's inability to deal effectively with such issues as Bosnia and Rwanda. Former British and French ties with Serbs, and recollections of Nazi influence in Croatia, frustrated common action in the Balkans. France's desire to preserve French-speaking African regimes, especially in Zaire, has complicated efforts to manage the political upheavals and refugees of Central Africa.

Europeans resent pressures that seem to flow primarily from US domestic politics. On NATO expansion, they believe the US is driven too much by the desire to please Eastern European constituencies at home. Closer to Russia, they worry more about Moscow's reaction. Serious doubts exist about the ability to meet the costs of expansion.

An article in the British journal Survival questions whether, "with weak governments, double-digit inflation, and budget deficits that remain above the levels necessary to meet the criteria for [EMU]," European nations can meet additional defense costs.

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Resentment also flows from feelings that Washington does not fully appreciate Europe's special problems. Although acknowledging that some errors were made in the handling of Jewish assets in World War II, the Swiss complain that the US does not understand the difficulties they faced in World War II as a land-locked country surrounded by belligerents and representing the diplomatic interests of both sides. Europeans, especially Germans, admit that such countries as Iran, Libya, and Iraq are involved in terrorist activities, but insist that trade sanctions are not an effective option. The Helms-Burton restrictions on Cuba have been a particularly sore point.

Significant transatlantic ties remain but cannot be taken for granted. The health of the US-European relationship ultimately depends on Europe's success in unification and on Washington's more sensitive understanding of Europe.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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