BRUSSELS, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- A team of geologists recently discovered that the Atlantic is getting wider each year as the European and North American plates gradually inch away from each other.
In politics too, it often seems the United States and the European Union are oceans apart.
Relations between Brussels and Washington were already strained at the beginning of 2003 due to differences over climate change, the international criminal court, genetically modified crops, farm subsidies and steel tariffs.
But it was President George W. Bush's decision to attack Iraq that plunged the trans-Atlantic relationship into its deepest crisis since the Suez Canal standoff in 1956.
Although most European countries actually supported the U.S. stance against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, many did so reluctantly and in the teeth of overwhelming public opposition.
On both sides of the Atlantic, there was mutual incomprehension and disbelief. France, Germany and Russia -- the leaders of Europe's anti-war camp -- could not understand why the United States chose to attack a regime that was finally allowing weapons inspectors to do their work. Washington, on the other hand, refused to believe Europe could be so complacent about a threat on its doorstep.
For a brief period in the spring, as hundreds of thousands of Europeans marched against "Yankee Imperialism" and French fries were renamed "freedom fries" in the U.S. Congress, it looked as though the trans-Atlantic relationship was on the rocks.
And then a strange thing happened. Like many couples that have started into the abyss, the United States and the EU realized they could not live without each other.
When French President and anti-war ringleader Jacques Chirac shook hands with his American counterpart at the Group of Eight summit in Evian in June, it was hardly a reaffirmation of wedding vows, but it signaled to the rest of the world that it was time to put past squabbles behind and focus on the future.
"We can have our disagreements, but that does not mean we have to be disagreeable to each other," said Bush after a brief tete-a tete with Chirac at the summit of rich nations in France.
Mood music helps, but cold economic data explains why Europe and America are fated to be friends. The United States and the EU produce more than half of the world's wealth and account for some 40 percent of global trade. Thirteen million jobs and more than $$@$!3 billion a day of trade and investment are dependent on tight trans-Atlantic bonds. And the two partners' economies are so intertwined that 60 percent of all foreign investment in the United States comes from the EU and three-quarters of Europe's investment abroad is in the United States.
On foreign policy issues, there is clearly a gulf between the instinctively unilateralist U.S. approach and the more multilateralist EU stance. But again, the differences are often exaggerated.
Despite the shouting match between Paris, Berlin and Washington over Iraq, most European states backed the U.S. decision to attack Baghdad and British, Polish, Danish, Spanish and Dutch troops are currently involved in peacekeeping duties in the war-torn state.
In Afghanistan, there are now more European than American soldiers and EU taxpayers have picked up the lion's share of the reconstruction bill -- as they have done in the Balkans and elsewhere.
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States and the EU see almost eye to eye, believing the four-stage "road map" to Palestinian independence to be the only viable hope for peace in the region.
And to the delight of Washington, the Brussels-based bloc toughened its stance on Iran and Cuba during the course of 2003, warning the former to submit to nuclear inspections or see lucrative trade talks halted and slapping mild diplomatic sanctions on the latter.
There is still lingering resentment on both sides of the Atlantic about the Iraq war -- not helped by Bush's decision to exclude France, Germany and Russia from bidding for reconstruction projects in the oil-rich state. But the frostiness is likely to fade in 2004 as the conflict becomes a distant memory and the Bush administration attempts to focus on domestic issues ahead of presidential elections in November.
It is no secret that many top decision-makers in Brussels and other "old European" capitals would prefer to see the back of Bush. But the leaders of Britain, Italy, Spain and most eastern European countries are beginning to feel comfortable with the straight-talking Texan.
The arrival of eight former communist countries in May will make the EU more pro-NATO, more pro-American and more free-market. This may not please Paris and Berlin, but it should go a long way toward calming the waters between Europe and the United States.