EUROPEAN UNION Leaders likely to shift focus

EU will be distracted from world affairs outside Europe, experts say.
WASHINGTON -- Just when President Bush had signaled a strong interest in working with Europe on a list of global issues, the European Union is thrown into deep turmoil that could pull its focus inward and away from the world.
Sunday's blow from French voters opposing an EU Constitution, and Wednesday's knockout from the Dutch in their own EU referendum, are likely to leave Europe in a period of introspection and preoccupation with internal affairs. And that, experts say, will distract European leaders from an emphasis on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iranian nuclear moves, Iraq reconstruction and global trade liberalization -- all areas where the Bush administration had hoped for Europe's undivided engagement.
"This was the moment when the administration was attempting to develop a closer relationship with Europe as a union to put its weight behind a rather large number of international issues, but the president may find the EU missing in action," said Simon Serfaty, a specialist in U.S.-Europe relations at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Bush kicked off the first year of his second term with a trip to Europe in February, during which he highlighted a desire to replace bitterness over the Iraq war with cooperation on democratization and economic development, particularly in the Middle East. While in Belgium, the president made a point of focusing on the EU's institutions in Brussels, saying a strong and united Europe was America's chief partner in world affairs.
French vote
At the same time, the deep political crisis caused by the French vote and the embarrassment it delivered to French President Jacques Chirac -- the biggest thorn in the side of U.S. efforts to muster international support for ousting Saddam Hussein -- could be sending a ripple of satisfaction through the White House. But the new weakness of not just Chirac but also German Chancellor Gerhard Schr & ouml;der and even British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a result of the developments is not ultimately in America's interest, most experts agree.
"Some people in the United States may be happy because this is a blow to Chirac, and then because this vision of Europe as a counterweight to the United States in the world is dead for the moment," said Patrick Chamorel, an expert in transatlantic affairs at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "But while the United States may want to avoid a counterweight, it also wants a strong partner in Europe, for everything from the Middle East to Iran to consolidating democracy in parts of Europe. And neither [the counterweight nor a strong partner] is true right now."
Europe's crisis comes just as officials prepare a particularly intense schedule of diplomatic meetings between U.S. and European leaders: at a U.S.-EU summit in Washington on June 20 and at the G-8 summit in Scotland in early July. Bush is also scheduled to host Blair at the White House on Tuesday, and Schr & ouml;der on June 27. The leaders plan to discuss issues ranging from democratization and global development to the ongoing Doha Round of international trade liberalization negotiations.
"Progress is at least halted at the moment," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, external relations commissioner for the EU, who was in Washington to prepare for the June 20 summit. But she adds, "At the same time work continues on other vital issues." Indeed, EU and U.S. representatives announced a joint summit on Iraq to be held in Brussels on June 22.
Yet in the coming weeks and months, European leaders will have multiple considerations to handle. Blair, just coming out of a bruising re-election bid, takes over the revolving presidency of the EU Council in July. He will be preoccupied not only with Europe's way forward but also with Britain's place within Europe, some observers note. Schr & ouml;der -- who won his last elections with an anti-Bush rant -- is considered very vulnerable in elections scheduled for later this year. And Chirac just this week responded to the "non" vote on the EU by naming as his new prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a nationalist with an anti-American streak who is expected to focus on domestic issues.
"The voice of the EU will be weakened until there is new leadership in France and Germany," Chamorel said. Noting that Chirac's term does not end until 2007. "It may take that [new leadership] to relaunch U.S.-European relations."

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