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EU-US relations put strained Bush years behind them, but what next?

brussels bureau

EU-US relations put strained Bush years behind them, but what next?


Nothing that happens in America is viewed with indifference in Europe. The old and new worlds have a privileged relationship, with the USA and EU bound up in NATO, and deep, longstanding trade links without which both would be much poorer, but there have been many disagreements during the Bush era.

One of the worst has been Guantanamo, the prison camp fiercely criticised in Europe on human rights grounds. Many have wondered what its future will be under a new president, whoever the winner may be.

“Both of them will very clearly try to get rid of the Guantanamo case. Of course in terms of torture that’s quite obvious. John McCain has been a victim of torture himself, I mean he’s certainly going to end all practices that are related to that. But Guatanamo, I think we only have to wait for the next American president to close it down,” says analyst Bart Kerremans from Luvin Catholic university in Belgium.

In 2001 NATO and the US made a secret deal. The CIA would use detention centres in Europe, little clandestine Guantanamos. Public opinion was shocked when the scandal broke. 14 member states were criticised in the Council of Europe for taking part

“I think that intuitively both of them will be against this. Of course the big question is, imagine that you are an American president and then suddenly one day on your table there is an indication in a NSA briefing that something may be coming up, and that you will have to use hard methods in order to let a prisoner confess, then maybe the temptation could be high to resort to these kind of very questionable practices,” continues Kerremans.

EU-USA exchanges make up 40 percent of world trade, and their arm-wrestling over agricultural subsidies is one reason for the collapse of the Doha world trade talks. Other commercial conflicts include genetically modified organisms, or hormone-boosted meat. But Kerremans thinks change will take time:

“We are not going to see any immediate impact on the relationship between the EU and the USA, but I do see potential tensions coming up with regard to labour standards, with regard to environmental standards with a number of developing countries. Of course it also depends on the extent to which an Obama policy in relation to those standards will be accompanied by financial supports to enable those countries to reach a higher level of labour or environmental standarisation. We will have to see that.”

Moreover, the eight Bush years have been scarred by two wars which have deeply divided Europeans. Public opinion demands a pullout from Iraq. McCain and Obama take opposite positions, but both will be counting on Europe.

“To the extent that a withdrawal of American troops would lead to instability, to a re-emergence or a re-escalation of conflict between different groups in Iraq then it would certainly not be in the interests of Europe that the US would withdraw itself rapidly. Now, there is another question related to that, that is that it’s quite evident that whether you have Obama as president or McCain, there will be a strong American demand for European financial support for reconstruction in Iraq,” concludes Kerremans.

Both McCain and Obama are thought to be less “go it alone” figures than Bush, and more likely to listen to allies. But will the winner like what he hears from Europe?

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