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U.S. Trade Chief Labors to Mend Rift With Europe Over War

May 03, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Despite their falling-out over the war in Iraq, Europe and the United States are "joined at the hip economically" and will eventually patch up their differences, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick predicted Friday.

But the first Cabinet official to visit Germany since transatlantic relations were strained in the fall indicated that the ties frayed by some longtime allies' objections to Washington's war plans are not yet on the mend.

Zoellick said he was heartened by a round of meetings in France and Germany this week that produced positive momentum in trade matters and a fresh commitment to working together for the global economic good.

Still, he said, events such as Tuesday's meeting in Brussels of the "coalition of the unwilling" -- Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg, which all opposed the U.S.-led war -- sent the wrong signal about whether prowar and antiwar factions are ready to make up.

"I don't think that was a constructive step," Zoellick said, characterizing the four-nation summit as "a somewhat odd security meeting led by that paragon of power, Brussels."

The European Union countries that opposed the U.S.-led war decided at the session in Belgium to create new military facilities independent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. All four nations are NATO members, and despite assurances of allegiance to the alliance by French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, U.S. and NATO officials looked askance at the plans.

At the economic level, though, Zoellick said he and his EU counterpart, Pascal Lamy, have their eyes on the big, mutually beneficial picture.

The United States and the European Union represent the world's two biggest economic powers, with $1.5 trillion in mutual trade each year.

"I'm here to extend my hand," Zoellick said of his mission this week, which is concluding with an international economic summit in Munich, Germany, this weekend. His European counterparts have reacted positively, he added, sharing his view that there is too much economic symbiosis to be damaged by the "emotionalized" political spat over Iraq.

"Germany was always a good partner for the United States in the past and will be in the future. There are strong mutual interests. It's not just because of the historically close ties -- it's because of our mutual interests," said Zoellick, one of the Bush administration's least politically doctrinaire envoys.

However, even Zoellick couldn't resist suggesting that Germany remains in America's debt for the support Washington offered 14 years ago when other European states were voicing deep skepticism about German reunification.

"When the chips are down, we'd like to be able to count on our friends, and it's difficult when our friends are against us," Zoellick said, adding that he has been around long enough to "remember when Germany needed friends in 1989."

U.S. consumer boycotts of products from countries that sought to block the Iraq war effort, primarily France, shadowed the sidelines of his talks with European trade authorities, Zoellick said. But he emphasized the political strains exerted little influence on either side's commitment to improving the bilateral relationship and the global economic condition.

"People felt hurt," Zoellick said of U.S. reaction to those allies who refused to support the war. But, he added on the subject of boycotts, "in the United States, this is a deep historical trend. We started to do this with British tea 200 years ago."

Schroeder has been ostracized by U.S. officials since his embrace of an antiwar message during the run-up to his reelection in September. The chancellor came from behind in the campaign with promises he made to antiwar Germans that he would not send troops to Iraq and with his description of the Bush war plan as an "adventure." Bush never congratulated Schroeder on his slim election victory, nor has he responded to recent overtures by the chancellor seen as efforts to mend political fences.

Although the war frictions were hardly helpful, Zoellick said, more vexing trade difficulties predate the Iraq conflict. Farm subsidies, differences over biotechnology and diametrically opposed views on the merits of genetically modified foods have long bedeviled the U.S.-European relationship, Zoellick reminded journalists.

On matters to which Zoellick devoted most of his attention during the week, the trade official said his European talks left him cautiously optimistic that a new World Trade Organization accord can be reached by the end of next year.

"I am more optimistic, but I also know there's a lot of work to do. I had a sense at the meetings that there was a good cooperative dialogue," he said.

He also said EU and U.S. economic envoys are working hard to make progress ahead of a WTO summit in Cancun, Mexico, in September.

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