European Union diplomats in Brussels are often heard to complain that they feel ignored by their American counterparts. In recent weeks, though, the carping has been quite the opposite. Ahead of the US-EU summit in Brdo, Slovenia, which begins on Tuesday, the telephones in Brussels have been ringing off the hook. On the other end of the line: top Bush administration officials.
Preparation for such phone calls has always been something of a strong suit for European bureaucrats, and their desks are covered with thick files documenting every possible topic to be addressed in Brdo: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia. All the major geopolitical challenges around the globe.
But this time, only one file has been necessary to field the calls from across the Atlantic: the one on chicken.
For 11 years, American chicken has been unwanted in Europe, banned because of the chlorine solution used to disinfect the birds in the US. For just as long, Washington has been doing its best to get the bird ban overturned. The Bush administration has argued that it violates free trade rules and says that the chlorine treatment is not harmful to consumers' health.
Recently, the European Commission has shown signs of wanting to solve the deadlock and has been working on a compromise deal to allow the import of American cluckers. The hope on both sides is that a solution to the chicken dilemma could lead to breakthroughs on other trade issues. But Europe may not yet be ready: Veterinary experts from 26 EU countries recently advised against lifting the import ban. The 27th, Great Britain, abstained. And the talks, once again, appear to be stuck.
Fixated on Fowl
In terms of the total volume of trans-Atlantic trade, the chicken question is minor at best. US chicken farmers lose in the neighborhood of $200 million (€125 million) a year because of the ban -- against a total volume of goods crossing the ocean worth more than $600 billion. But the Bush administration has become fixated on fowl -- so much so that a high-ranking European official was recently heard to sigh: "The entire summit is being called into question because of this trifle."
As usual with such disputes, however, there is more at stake in the current altercation than just a couple of chickens. The issue is a major test of the Transatlantic Economic Council, a group born out of a suggestion by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and which, since last year, has been trying to strengthen trans-Atlantic trade ties. A primary aim of the council is that of working to eliminate barriers to the free flow of goods between Europe and the US.
The Americans, however, have never been overly enthusiastic about the project. Indeed, many observers think that Bush agreed to the council merely as a favor to Merkel. Since then, his government seems to have lost interest entirely -- a development that the chicken showdown could accelerate. The US can point to the ongoing face-off as evidence that Europe isn't interested in opening up trade at all.
The fact that such an issue as minor as the chicken debate has hit the headlines, though, shows more than anything that trans-Atlantic relations have once again hit a standstill. Officially, President Bush is in Europe to improve cooperation on dealing with Iran, the Middle East and the environment. But even National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley isn't expecting much. "I don't think you're going to see dramatic announcements on this trip," he told reporters at a press conference last week.
'Looking Beyond the Bush Era'
A Brussels diplomat, who requested anonymity, went even further. "In truth, the US-EU summit is only being held because it is on the schedule," he said. "Of course there are possible areas of cooperation, like climate protection. But everyone is already looking beyond the Bush era."
Bush seems to be as well. Even given the chicken differences, Washington sees Bush's six-day trip through Europe as something of a farewell tour. In addition to Slovenia, the president will be visiting Berlin, Paris, Rome, London and Belfast. A spat on the first day of the trip is the last thing the White House wants. "Bush wants to hear kind words from the European leaders," Jeremy Shapiro, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations with the Brookings Institution, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "He is eager to show his legacy in Europe is not as bad as many suggest and that his actions have been somehow validated."
That, though, seems unlikely. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Europeans have viewed Bush with a great measure of distrust and fully 77 percent now disagree with his international policies according to the most recent Transatlantic Trends survey published late last year.
Bush, though, will encounter very little of that sentiment on his carefully planned trip. In Paris, he will likely get a rousing welcome from President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has re-oriented his country on a pro-US course. In Rome, his old friend Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will be waiting to receive him. And in London, even if Prime Minister Gordon Brown likely won't be quite as effusive in his Bush fawning as his predecessor Tony Blair was, he still places great stock in British-American relations.
Little Interest in a Joint Appearance
And in Germany? For a while after her 2005 election, Merkel was Bush's preferred contact partner in Europe and even invited her and her husband to his ranch in Crawford. But German diplomats are portraying Bush's stopover in Berlin less as a personal visit to Merkel and more as an official visit in conjunction with the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. The president will be staying in the government's official guesthouse, Meseberg Palace, outside Berlin and he will be making no official appearances in the capital. Merkel, it would seem, has little interest in being seen in public with the unpopular president.
Bush himself seems content to play his bad-guy role right to the very end. Just recently, his government presented plans to require Europeans -- even those who don't need visas -- to register online at least three days before travelling to the US. Bush himself once again mentioned the possibility of a strike on Iran. And his Republican Party recently blocked a climate protection bill in the Senate.
Still, Europe is looking beyond Bush. The outgoing president has made it easy for Europe to resist requests for more involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. But that will change -- likely as soon as next year. Should Barack Obama, who is wildly popular in Europe, get elected, it will be even more difficult for Europe to say no. The question then would be a more existential one for trans-Atlantic relations: Instead of wondering if the cross-ocean relationship can survive Bush's presidency, the question will be whether Europe and the US are natural partners as has so long been assumed. Or whether the rise of other world regions like Asia has done permanent damage to the axis.
"The Bush visit," says John Glenn of the German Marshall Fund, "is a reminder that one of the most interesting periods of all times is about to begin in trans-Atlantic relations: What is the post-Bush era going to look like?"