Stefania Bianchi:

European Union (EU) officials watched with interest, and some with dismay, as

US President Bush was inaugurated for a second four-year term at a lavish ceremony on Jan. 20. Many, who have felt alienated by the Bush’s go-it-alone foreign policy in recent years and the US-led war in Iraq, had hoped he would lose the US election last November, but now those critics will have to be content with making the most of what they see as a bad situation.

But Bush has vowed to mend the broken relationship with the EU and change the US approach to the bloc and other multilateral bodies. Shortly after his Nov. 2 victory, Bush promised to “work through the NATO alliance and with the EU to strengthen cooperation between Europe and America.” In return, the EU will be hoping that Bush will listen and consult more over ongoing disputes that are currently fuelling the transatlantic divide.

But even before Bush officially took up his second term, differences over a range of issues emerged. While the EU and the US managed to avert a legal clash between the world’s top two aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, other trade and political disputes remain a source of tension. Suggestions by British foreign secretary Jack Straw last week that the EU intends to lift its 15-year arms embargo on China have angered the US.

Washington argues that resumption of European arms sales will undermine Taiwan and encourage domestic repression. The EU’s warming relations with Cuba are also a source of discontent for Washington. Relations between the EU and Cuba broke down after European diplomats began inviting critics of Fidel Castro to cocktail parties in Cuban capital Havana. The practice began after Cuba’s imprisonment of 75 dissidents which it said were mercenaries in the pay of Washington, and the execution of three men who attempted to hijack a ferry. But last month the European Commission, the EU executive, recommended the practice be abandoned.

But the US stands firm on its anti-Cuba position. New US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice called Cuba an “outpost of tyranny” during her testimony before Congress on Jan. 18. But Rice also stressed the importance of the US relationship with multilateral institutions such as the EU and the UN. The US and EU approach to Iran is also likely to remain a source of tension during Bush’s second term, with the EU favouring dialogue to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear arms, and the US, pressure. Bush has also shown no sign of answering calls to sign the Kyoto protocol to cut greenhouse gases, or to endorse the International Criminal Court. There are few signs of moves to strengthen the dollar despite complaints from the EU that its exports are suffering because of the high euro. During Bush’s second term the EU will look for much more commitment to Middle East peacemaking. It is hoping that the US will live up to its promises to put “new vigour” into the Middle East peace process.

Bush will find little comfort if he looks to European citizens for support. A BBC survey published on the eve of Bush’s inauguration shows that few are hopeful about the President’s second term. Three-quarters of French and Germans felt Bush’s re-election was bad for peace and security in the world, while almost two-thirds of Britons thought so. Unsurprisingly, the main factor behind the generally negative assessment is the war in Iraq. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU commissioner for foreign affairs, said it is “understandable” why public opinion fails to appreciate the value of the EU-US partnership, but insists that is important to reverse such a trend. —IPS