Why Europe Blanches at U.S. Genes and Missiles

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European Union leaders weren't exactly lining up to applaud President Clinton off the field following what looks to have been their last summit of his presidency. They agreed to disagree on the issues vexing transatlantic trade — ranging from genetically modified foods to European banana subsidies — at their meeting in Portugal on Wednesday, and President Clinton's offer to share U.S. missile defense technology did little to dilute European opposition to Washington's plan to build even a limited defensive shield. "The Europeans are hurt and angry that they weren't consulted about the U.S. decision, particularly after Defense Secretary Cohen earlier this year warned that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty would be scrapped altogether if Russia refused to renegotiate it to allow Washington to proceed," says TIME Brussels bureau chief James Graff. "They see it as another sign of growing unilateralism on Washington's part, and they're very worried that the proposal will goad Russia into launching a new arms race. European fears will evaporate if Moscow comes around to accepting Washington's terms, but right now there's no sign of that occurring." And Clinton's offer to share the technology did little to pacify his European critics, since even if they accepted the validity of deploying such a system, no European country maintains a defense budget capable of supporting the cost of even a portion of such a system.

While Europe's fears of missile defense are grounded in real fears of a Russian escalation that would directly threaten their security, its concerns over genetically altered crops may be more culturally based. To be sure, the continent's headline writers use terms such as "contamination" to refer to the introduction of genetically altered seed in Europe, whereas such practices are commonplace in the U.S. But while some in Washington may suspect this concern disguises a more basic economic nationalism, it may also be a reflection of deep philosophical differences. "There's a fundamental difference in attitude at work on this issue," says Graff. "The Europeans insist on a precautionary principle, which holds that unless you can scientifically prove that something is absolutely safe you should be cautious about introducing it. In the U.S., the onus is on proving that something causes harm rather than proving that it's absolutely safe. So it comes down to a clash between the can-do American ethos and the more skeptical or cautious European one." Adds TIME science editor Phillip Elmer-DeWitt, "In the U.S., the FDA has sufficient scientific prestige that the public will generally trust its assessment of any dangers involved in consuming particular foods, but in Europe there's no equivalent body to the FDA." And maybe they'd be more receptive to that idea than to "Star Wars."