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LONDON — Nowadays the European Union and the United States seem to be locked in almost permanent quarrels. One moment it’s bananas, then it’s steel, land mines, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, European defense arrangements and NATO. Then it’s the question of whether there should be a permanent international criminal court.

The disputes are getting more serious with strong differences over the handling of the Middle East crisis, charges that the Europeans are not only biased in favor of the Arab/Palestinian cause but actually turning back to dark anti-Semitism (which is nonsense), and repeated views from across the Atlantic that the Europeans are weak and unreliable allies in the war on terrorism.

Bitter, and sometimes contemptuous, words are heard from the lips of senior EU officials in Brussels, such as Commission President Romano Prodi and External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, about American foreign policy. On the U.S. side, senior journalists in Washington, reflecting the administration’s feelings, are pulling no punches in their contempt for Europe’s stance on a wide range of issues.

What has gone wrong? Why has the historic trans-Atlantic partnership, which has served the free world so well, taken on this sour and negative tone?

On the surface the answer can be given in two words, “France” and “Bush.”

France, despite all its creativity and brilliance, remains deeply anti-American, just as it has been all along since the times of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. It is the French who have been agitating continuously for an “autonomous” European defense force, free from NATO and the despised American hegemony.

French officials were the first in Europe, following the horrors of Sept. 11, to opine that the Americans somehow “had it coming” and to make other unpleasant remarks.

Generally, the French seem to be continuously at war with alleged American culture, American success and American policy. This, in turn, infects the whole EU system.

That in itself is nothing very new and can easily be forgiven as part of France’s glorious and perennial distinctiveness on almost every aspect of life that makes it so interesting.

But the arrival of the new Bush administration has given anti-Americanism in Europe a new dimension. From the moment U.S. President George W. Bush took office, a steady stream of hostile and deprecating comments could be heard coming from Brussels about America’s simplistic and absolutist approach and Bush’s alleged parochialism and lack of interest in world affairs. The scene was clearly set for more bad-tempered disputes all round. These have duly occurred.

The irony is that while spokesmen in Brussels and Washington increasingly lock horns on trade, the environment, competition, energy, foreign policy and security, the relationship between the U.S. and individual European states is not nearly as bad.

France may be cool, as usual, but American relations with Germany, Italy and Spain are good. Relations with Britain have never been closer.

Not only do the British and Americans see eye to eye on global terrorist issues but British diplomats seem to be able to handle even such contentious matters as U.S. steel quotas and the American rejection of the Kyoto agreement in a more friendly and positive way at a bilateral level than their EU counterparts.

One obvious conclusion is that, at the level of the EU’s institutions, there is a plain lack of experience and maturity among officials. The EU’s foreign policy spokesman and representative, Javier Solana, has a reputation for sensitivity and calming diplomacy. But others inside both the Commission and the European Parliament seem to go out of their way to criticize and pick quarrels with the Americans, and this is causing growing irritation all round.

But the issue is bigger than one of mere personalities. The hard reality is that the EU sees itself increasingly as a player in the superpower league and as a world-class bloc and, therefore, a rival to the U.S. This attitude of rivalry comes out in everything from trade and promotion of the euro as a rival to the dollar, to security and international affairs.

In one sense, this was always unavoidable. Once the separate EU member states put their trade affairs in the hands of one set of Brussels officials, the rest of the world, America and Japan included, were bound to find that they were dealing with a weightier and sometimes more intransigent entity, and this was bound to create extra tensions.

There were always going to be problems, for instance, over EU agricultural subsidies and other protective devices vs. American agricultural protection, whoever negotiated with whom.

But the real danger comes when EU officials start believing that they can “take on” America on much wider fronts, such as foreign policy. This is the point where it becomes essential for Europeans to understand that they are meant to be partners. They should think at all times as partners of the U.S., rather than as rivals.

It is just this key point that EU officials seem to have forgotten.

The conclusion has to be that the individual member states, if they want to prevent U.S.-European relations deteriorating further, should take rapid steps to reclaim their own bilateral responsibilities for international relations and world affairs, and not leave them to unreliable and overaspiring Eurocrats.

The British used to be regularly criticized for wanting to confine the EU mainly to trade and economic issues and prevent it from developing into a heavyweight political and military power.

Now that the dangerous consequences of trying to go along this route are becoming visible, growing numbers of sensible Europeans are coming round to the more balanced British viewpoint.

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