They were once close, fast friends. But over the last eight years, Europe and America have grown apart. There was no "it's not you, it's me," conversation. Both of them unrelentingly blamed the other for the way things had turned out. Europe felt overlooked, and America felt betrayed. "You've grown too big for your boots," Europe said. "You should have stuck by me when times got tough," America replied.
Now, the relationship is purely business. The biggest trade relationship in the world takes place along the transatlantic corridor, with goods trade in 2007 nearly equaling $600 billion. America likes to indulge in the continental flavors of Brie cheese and Beligan beer, and Europe likes to wear Nike sneakers and watch Quentin Tarantino movies. The trade of services also surpassed $360 billion last year, thanks to Microsoft, Google and good old American banking (technology, customer databases and high-risk investment). According to the EU's Delegation of the European Commission to the USA, Europe and America are each other's largest foreign investors. Their commercial relationship is inextricable, proved by the speed at which America's financial crisis spread - first to their closest ally, the United Kingdom, and then through the flood gates of continental Europe. A bulk of European money is invested in the U.S., and according to Antonio Missiroli from the Center for European Policy studies, global interdependence means that "we cannot return to a time of continental fortresses." If one falls, we all fall.
This does not mean, however, that the two continents have to trust each other or even like each other. Europe's opinion of U.S. leadership in world affairs fell from a favorable 64 percent in 2002 to an underwhelming 36 percent in 2008. The desirability of President Bush plummeted from 38 percent to just 19 percent this year. Europe's perception of America is at a low point, and no-one knows if the unflattering image will be forever seared into the international mindset or can start to be re-drawn after Jan. 20, 2009.
"There are two attitudes in Europe" said Missiroli. "Either everything will change with the end of the Bush era, or nothing will change." According to a study gaging European opinions on transatlantic issues, every major country in the European Union believes that the partnership between the U.S. and the EU needs to become closer with the onset of the next administration. Some European officials say that they don't even really care who wins. "Just the fact of change will be a positive thing," said Missiroli.
"We don't know who it's going to be, but it's not going to be President Bush," said Robert Pszcel from NATO. "That's for sure."
José Manuel Durão Barroso, president of the European Commission, has laid out a few ideas to help the next U.S. president - whoever he may be - rekindle the transatlantic relationship. Last Month, during a speech at Harvard University titled "A Letter from Brussels to the Next President of the United States of America", Barroso read a letter he had prepared for the 44th U.S. president. "Our relationship is significant for the rest of the world," he read. "In these times of uncertainty, the EU needs the US - and yes - the US needs the EU more than ever."
Globalization and the emergence of new powers (commonly referred to in the EU as "BRIC" - Brazil, Russia, India and China) are incontrovertible reasons, Barroso claimed, for the two greatest forces in the world to start working together on more than a superficial level. This means setting an agenda of "common action" that will benefit the whole world. No dissenting. No surprise moves. No closed-door decisions that will send shock waves throughout the globe.
The bottom line: No more gung-ho, yee-haw politics and no more apathy toward international problems like energy, global warming and terrorism. "These are the challenges that require Europeans and Americans to agree," said Barroso.
But the EU isn't a household name in America. In fact, even Europeans have a hard time understanding what this massive organization actually is, making it twice as difficult to convince the U.S. government that it deserves more power in the decision making process. The EU doesn't have an army. The EU follows a pacifist ideology. The EU likes to sit at the table and "talk it out."
"We talk to anyone under any circumstances," said Emanuele Ottolenghi from the EU's Transatlantic Institute. "That is the philosophy in Europe."
More often than not, the problem isn't starting a dialogue - it's getting a result. Not only does action require the consensus of 27 separate member countries, many of whom still have old grudges to bear, but the political process is a complicated labyrynth of back-and-forthing between what can seem like hundreds of similar-sounding departments. Every EU official likes to evoke a famous Henry Kissinger quote: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" Kissinger asked. The answer - it's a rhetorical question.
If the relationship is going to improve, it's going to have to be done face to faces. According to Ottolenghi, favorable opinions increase when Europeans and Americans alike cross the Atlantic border. It helps Americans understand how their culture is perceived and it helps Europeans to build a more open-minded image. The new president will have to visit EU headquarters in Brussels and pop his head into the continent more often to solve the "frequent, profoundly enraging tiffs" (to quote Ottolenghi) that have embittered the friendship.
"It's a love/hate relationship," said Ottolenghi. "Our relationship is so intertwined, that it's like husband and wife going through the worst."