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EUROPE, INTERRUPTED

The American Shrug

June 01, 2005

President Bush can be forgiven a little private gloating over France's rejection of the European Union constitution. Not only does it represent a stunning defeat for one of his least favorite leaders, French President Jacques Chirac, it releases one of his staunchest allies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, from a near-certain defeat on a referendum on the same constitution and allows Blair to promote his vision of a more America-friendly EU.

Yet the administration has been restrained nearly to the point of silence, resisting the temptation to say anything remotely interesting, much less triumphant. Bush did not bring up the vote at Tuesday's news conference, nor was he asked about it, and the State Department's official reaction amounted to a 51-word non-statement pledging partnership with Europe "however the European Union evolves."

Transatlantic relations have been through difficult times before, and it may be an overstatement to say this vote raises serious questions "about the future of Europe," in Blair's words. Moreover, the president voiced his support for "Europe's diplomatic unity" in a Brussels speech in February. Maybe his reluctance to reiterate that view stems from a general concern, well placed, not to comment on what was in the end a French national referendum.

But the administration needn't be so careful that it misses the opportunity to say (or even ask) what kind of Europe it wants to see. For example: A more integrated Europe, led by France, might have been able to delay or stop the war in Iraq. Then again, a more integrated Europe, led by Britain, might have been able to lend the effort more support. To the degree that Sunday's vote weakens French influence on the EU, it may be helpful; to the degree that it weakens the EU itself, it is not.

Diplomacy is mostly the art of saying nothing very carefully. Still, the president and his advisors can afford to be a little more outspoken about the fate of Europe.

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