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EU-U.S.: U.S. Diplomat In Brussels To Ease Ties

Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Robert Zoellick today concluded a two-day visit to Brussels at the tail end of a weeklong European tour. Zoellick met with the EU's external affairs commissioner and spoke before the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament. The parliament backed Washington's plan to keep in place a EU arms embargo against China. But other potential rifts threaten to sour the recent detente in trans-Atlantic ties

Prague, 5 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Zoellick said his trip was meant to complement the recent visits to Europe of U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The 14 countries Zoellick traveled to over the course of his visit included a number of capitals not visited by Bush or Rice. (The trip included Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain.)

He also met with NATO ambassadors.

Zoellicks' top priority was maintaining Washington's push to convince the EU n-o-t to lift its arms embargo against China.

The EU was expected to reach a decision by July. But the issue has been complicated by Beijing's toughened stance against Taiwan. The U.S. argues that resuming arms sales to China will put its island ally at risk.

Elmar Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, today voiced strong support for the U.S. position. Ultimately, however, it is the EU member states, and not the parliament, who will make the decision on China.

Zoellick praised what he called a "healthy debate" on the issue, but said it was ultimately a decision for Europe, n-o-t the U.S.:

"What the President (Bush) and the Secretary [of state] and I and members of our Congress have been trying to do is explain our (U.S.) perspective, explain it [in terms of] security in the Pacific [region], the human rights issues, how it would affect trans-Atlantic defense cooperation," said Zoellick.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has called the embargo "unfair" to China.

But members of the U.S. Congress have threatened retaliatory sanctions on the bloc if it lifts the arms embargo. Such sanctions could ban EU companies from acquiring U.S. military technology.

Brok and Zoellick today attempted to focus on the positive, saying improved U.S.-EU ties could have benefits for the Middle East.

Brok praised Bush's renewed willingness to work together with the EU at bringing peace and stability to the region:

"I think we have a common interest," Brok said. "We might have made mistakes in the past, but we have seen now that the path to peace and freedom in the Middle East and the 'Broader Middle East' is only possible if the United States and Europe act in a partnership. And what we have learned is that, [of] the most value for this partnership is a united Europe."

Talks between Zoellick and EU representatives also focused on ways to boost the bloc's contribution in Iraq, as well as developments in Iran, Kyrgyzstan and the Balkans.

The unsteady relationship between the United States and the European Union was seen to improve following Bush's trip to the Continent in February.

But two potential sources of conflict remain.

One concerns differences over subsidies and government support for manufacturers of large aircraft.

The U.S. company Boeing and the French Airbus see each other as direct rivals and the two sides have tried to agree on terms allowing for freer and fairer competition.

However, talks broke down last month. Some fear the issue may balloon into a trade war.

The other potential problem involves visas. Of the original 15 EU states, all but one -- Greece -- enjoy visa-free access to the United States.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, Washington threatened to impose a visa regime on some Europeans. The EU has managed to receive one extension to the deadline. But the U.S. Congress has indicated it will n-o-t grant the bloc a second extension.

EU officials have hinted the bloc may retaliate in kind if the U.S. reintroduces cumbersome visa procedures.

Zoellick yesterday said the U.S. appreciates the gravity of the matter, but added that the administration cannot defy Congress:

"We realize it's a serious matter," Zoellick said. "It's a serious matter in terms of security, it's also a serious matter in terms of getting people into the United States. We will continue to try to work with our partners in Europe on it, but also with the U.S. Congress. But right now its the law and we're bound by it."

The EU's external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (eds: female), said yesterday the bloc also wants Washington to take steps to remove visa requirements for all of the bloc's eastern member-states, with the exception of Slovenia.