BRUSSELS, Belgium – Senior European Union (search) officials meet with U.S. President George W. Bush (search) in Washington on Monday amid uncertainty about the impact that the unprecedented crisis gripping the 25-nation bloc could have on trans-Atlantic relations.
But as the delegation headed for Washington, EU capitals were just beginning to digest the impact of the collapse of their recent EU summit.
The leaders' failure last Thursday and Friday to agree on a budget for the next few years and signal that the EU draft constitution remains a viable undertaking has saddled Europe with a crisis of confidence.
"Well beyond the borders of the European Union, there will be concern, not that the EU is now facing some kind of unraveling or disintegration, but that it will be paralyzed as a major force in world affairs," said John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank.
He said the crisis of confidence will have particular importance in the United States.
"Opinion in Washington seems divided between those who want to see a more united and effective EU and those who openly celebrate its failure to act as an effective player on the global scene," Palmer said in an assessment of the crisis posted on his think tank's web site.
He said the EU crisis will be closely followed in Asia, Latin America and Africa, where governments "will fear the possible weakening of influence of an ally in the cause of a more effective system of law-based, global governance."
The EU delegation traveling to Washington will be led by Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker (search), whose country holds the EU rotating presidency until the end of the month.
Juncker will meet with Bush at the White House. The delegation also includes Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission (search), the executive that runs the EU's day-to-day affairs; Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU External Relations Commissioner, and Javier Solana (search), the 25-nation bloc's security affairs chief.
EU sources said Juncker — who chaired the EU summit — will make clear in his talks in Washington that there is a crisis but not one that will aggravate trans-Atlantic ties at a time when both sides are working hard to improve relations.
Bush made a bury-the-hatchet visit to Europe in February to close the book on intense divisions over the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq. The two sides agreed to co-host a conference on Iraq's economic and political development that will be held in Brussels on Wednesday.
The EU-U.S. meeting had been scheduled before French and Dutch voters rejected the draft EU constitution in votes on May 29 and June 1, setting off a crisis over ever more integration that only got worse when the EU leaders tangled over farm spending as part of a budget deal in the 2007-2013 period.
The leaders postponed a November 2006 ratification deadline for the EU constitution, but were unclear on how to undo the rejections of the draft charter by voters in France and the Netherlands. Britain has already put its 2006 referendum on hold, as have Denmark and Portugal.
The EU summit opened up a fundamental difference of vision: Britain believes in an American-style free-market system and is fighting to reform the bloc's spending, while France is intent on preserving time-honored social welfare protections.
EU officials say the trans-Atlantic relationship is so vast — and crucial to global peace — that it must not be held hostage to the future of the constitution which, among other things, provides for new voting rules to accelerate decision-making in the EU.
In recent months, the EU and the United States have moved closer on Iraq and stayed united on the way forward to peace in the Middle East.
Crucially, Europe and the United States also boast the world's largest bilateral trade relationship. They both account for 20 percent of each other's bilateral trade which now stands at 1 billion euros ($1.23 billion) a day.
Investment links are even more substantial. Two-way investments amount to over 1.5 trillion euros ($1.845 trillion), with each side employing directly and indirectly about 6 million people in the other.