Saturday, April 14, 2007

Peel in Our Time

Just hours after announcing the imminent return of the 24 spy-plane flyers from China, the Bush administration's newly displayed affinity for soft-shoe diplomacy scored another win: The Great Banana War is over.

The European Union and the United States announced an accord Wednesday to end their years-long dispute over whether E.U. trade policy illegally favored bananas imported from former European colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific over cheaper bananas from Latin America sold by U.S. firms Chiquita and Dole. The E.U. promised to reduce those quotas from 850,000 to 750,000, and the U.S., in exchange, will lift price-doubling retaliatory tariffs on European imports ranging from French handbags to British linens and Danish ham, tariffs the Clinton administration felt justified in imposing after it won a WTO decision on the dispute in 1999.

Besides the reduction in the quotas — which E.U. trade commissioner Pascal Lamy couldn't resist characterizing as a "slightly smaller amount" — it's not clear what Bush's man on the scene, new U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick, obtained in exchange for lifting the tariff. But just as there was a bigger picture (Taiwan, trade) to U.S.-China relations than one errant spy plane, there's a bigger picture to Europe-U.S. relations than bananas. Like Bush pulling out of Kyoto. Or insisting on a missile-defense shield. Or reassessing U.S. European troop balance in the Balkans.

Compared to those issues, trade is easy. And it seems very much as if George W. Bush took one look at the banana war his predecessor had started and decided that it wasn't worth fighting.

Colonial guilt might seem like a poor reason for the E.U. to prefer Caribbean bananas to the by-all-accounts superior Latin America bananas grown under Chiquita's and Dole's aegis. But Europe's policy was aimed at a "trade not aid" goal of keeping small family farms afloat. The U.S. stance, meanwhile, seems to have been designed almost solely by hundreds of thousands of soft-money contributions to the Democrats made by Chiquita owner Carl Lindner.

The E.U. swears trade relations are smoother already. "This is an important piece in the puzzle of improving trans-Atlantic trade relations," said Swedish minister for trade Leif Pagrotsky, whose country holds the rotating E.U. presidency. And Lamy added that after years of butting heads with the Clinton administration, he sensed a desire under President Bush to "reduce the list of disputes rather than increase it."