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U.S./EU: Bush Launches Charm Offensive To Win Over Brussels

U.S. President George W. Bush ended his visit to Brussels today with a strong message of support to further EU unity and integration. This was meant to allay one of the chief EU concerns -- that the United States sees Europe as a competitor and seeks to hinder its ascent as a global actor. Bush also sounded conciliatory notes on main EU concerns in the world, such as Iran and the Middle East. And, he took an unexpectedly tough stance on Russia ahead of a summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava.

Brussels, 22 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- President George W. Bush ratcheted up his "charm offensive" in Europe by another notch at the end of his visit to Brussels, which concluded with a summit meeting with EU leaders.

Standing side by side with the Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who currently chairs the EU; the president of the European Commission, Jose-Manuel Barroso; and the bloc's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, Bush told them what they had most hoped to hear.

Bush said the United States is interested in a strong, integrated EU and seeks to take its views into account. "It is in our interest that Europe be strong," he said. "It is in our interest that the European Union work out whatever differences there are and become a continued, viable, strong partner."

The EU leaders responded in kind. Barroso said the recent troubles were behind the two partners, underscoring the EU's desire to work with the United States on the global arena. "Europe and America have reconnected," he said. "This visit has highlighted all that unites Europe and America. It has focused the eyes of the world on all that we share. I believe that the relationship between the United States and Europe is the world's strongest, most comprehensive, and strategically important partnership."

Bush took great care to make clear that he regards both the EU and NATO as equally important partners, with which the United States will work respecting their differences.

He also went to some length trying to ease concerns in Europe that the United States is seriously considering attacking Iran. The EU is involved in negotiations with Iran with the aim of guaranteeing that the country's nuclear programme cannot result in the production of nuclear weapons. EU officials have complained in recent weeks they do not receive enough clear U.S. support on the issue. It is widely felt that an attack on Iran would set the trans-Atlantic relationship back at least as badly as the war in Iraq.

Bush drew genuine laughter today when he said an attack was not on the agenda and then reiterated the generic caveat that no U.S. president will ever foreclose any option available to the White House.

"This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack is Iran is simply ridiculous," Bush said. "Having said that, all options are on the table [laughter]."

However, Bush did not address the issue of whether the United States will become more closely involved in the talks with Iran.

The EU on its part appeared more forthcoming on the issue of Iran. European allies in NATO today offered Bush a modest training programme, whereas the EU has decided to set up its own, but even less ambitious "rule-of-law mission" for Iraq.

Jean-Claude Juncker indicated today the EU is ready to do more. He said the bloc has suggested that the EU and the United States both host a new international conference in Iraq's aid. "Should the new Iraqi government request it, the United States and the European Union are prepared to co-host an international conference to provide a forum to encourage and coordinate international support for Iraq," Jucker said.

Bush also strongly supported shared aims with the EU in the Middle Eastern peace process, confirming U.S. support for the creation of a Palestinian state. However, he failed to publicly endorse the "road map" to peace setting out detailed conditions for an eventual settlement. The EU has said full respect for the road map provides the only sustainable way to peace.

Bush was unexpectedly critical of the record of the Russian President Vladimir Putin whom he will meet on 24 February in the Slovak capital Bratislava. He criticized Russia's encroachment on press freedom, and said he'd particularly taken to heart concerns expressed by the Baltic countries.

"I think it is very important that President Putin hear not only from me, in a private way, which he will, but also hear some of the concerns I heard around the [EU summit] table today. There were some concerns from the Baltic nations, and I look forward to carrying their message that it is very important for President Putin to make very clear why he's made some of the decisions he's made and, as well [to] respect his neighbors. And I'm confident that can be done in a cordial way," Bush said.

Diplomats said Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga had been particularly instrumental in raising Bush's interest in the problems the three Baltic countries have had with Russia. She took up the issue at the NATO summit this morning and followed it up during a private chat with Bush.