Is the U.S.-Europe Political Rift Closing?

European leaders have not been shy about expressing their hostility toward President Bush and the war in Iraq. But some observers think the tide may be turning.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

All this week, NPR News has been running the series called Crossing the Divide, about whether deep divisions in this country can be bridged.

The leaders certainly talk the talk.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There is a great opportunity for us to show the country that Republicans and Democrats are equally as patriotic and equally concerned about the future, and that we can work together.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship.

SIMON: In a moment, how national security and Iraq have divided the country - and maybe united it. First though, a view from abroad.

President Bush barely even mentioned Europe in the State of the Union Address this week, but Europe was watching him closely. The hostility of many Europeans towards both President Bush and the war in Iraq are well known, but as NPR's Rob Gifford now reports, some European analysts think the rift may be healing.

ROB GIFFORD: Around the time of the Iraq war, one German commentator wrote that the war had done what nothing else had been able to: to actually unite the people of the European Union in one opinion.

That opposition was certainly clear on the streets, even if some political leaders did support the war. Now, though, that the change of face is in Europe - pro-war leaders Sylvia Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Maria Aznar are gone, Tony Blair is due to step down by the summer. Ironically though, in France, where Jacques Chirac so opposed U.S. policy, many people's favorite to replace him in this spring's presidential election is Nicolas Sarkozy, who's made no secret of his very pro-American sentiments.

Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for Foreign Relations says he thinks this shows the balance is tipping back towards a greater closeness with America, especially if President Bush is succeeded by a Democrat in the White House.

Mr. DOMINIQUE MOIS (French Institute for Foreign Relations): There was, in France, support for the opposition to the war in Iraq but a lot of criticism for the style of the opposition - a feeling that France had gone too far in rallying the voice of the world against America. And clearly, the encounter between a Democratic president in the United States and a relatively pro-American president, such as Nicolas Sarkozy in France, could change the climate of our relationship.

GIFFORD: This change has already happened in Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a strong critic of the Iraq war, has been replaced by the very pro-American Angela Merkel.

Josef Joffe is publisher is publisher of the Hamburg weekly, Die Zeit. He says that external factors such as Iran are also playing a role in bringing Europe and America back together.

Mr. JOSEF JOFFE (Publisher, Die Zeit): The fact is that what happened in the last couple of years, with the rise of the threat of Iranian hegemony and the Iranian bomb, was general instability in the Middle East, has brought the two sides closer together. Not - you know, it's not a love affair, but it's cool(ph) interest on either - on the European side, dictates it don't want to be split from the United States. And secondly, of course, the United States has changed its tone. I mean surely, with Rumsfeld gone, the Washington doesn't talk as contentiously anymore to the Europeans and about the Europeans as it did three, four years ago.

GIFFORD: Joffe says there will always be knee-jerk anti-Americanism in some parts of European society. But he says ironically, some policy makers are worried that the problems in Iraq are making the U.S. less inclined to be engaged elsewhere.

Mr. JOFFE: Having worried about the United States a few years ago, which threw its weight around, that's kind of anti-(unintelligible) they may be even more worried about a weak and demoralized and isolationalist America. I think that's where we are, fear of too little American power and too little American involvement.

GIFFORD: European analysts say certainly, a Democratic-controlled Congress is likely to improve relations across the Atlantic. And many believe that the rift is slowly healing. The issues facing Europe and the U.S., they say, are in the end too big for a long-term split.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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