Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

EU, Bush administration warily try some fence-mending

DPA , Brussels

European leaders are hoping to use key meetings with US President George W. Bush in Brussels next week to repair transatlantic relations following two years of acrimony over the Iraq war.

Bush, on his first foreign tour after starting his second presidential term last month, will be attending separate summit talks at NATO and European Union headquarters on Tuesday. Meetings are planned with the Belgian government a day earlier.

But while the mood is clearly mellower than in recent years, EU policymakers and independent analysts warn of abiding disagreements between the two sides on a range of foreign policy, human rights and environmental issues.

Official statements from both sides however paint an altogether rosier picture.

"We did have our differences," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Brussels last week during a much-publicised charm offensive to win over disgruntled Europeans.

But the focus was now on how Americans and Europeans, with a "history of shared values," could work together, Rice said.

Significantly, Rice repeated Washington's support for a strong and united EU

More surprisingly given his well-known Euro-sceptic views, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has also been trying to woo Europeans ahead of the Bush visit.

Attending an international security conference in Munich recently, Rumsfeld steered clear of his legendary confrontational style which once led him to dub anti-Iraq war nations Germany and France as "old Europe." Instead, the US defence chief poked fun at himself, saying that such remarks had been "old Rumsfeld".

EU policymakers appear just as anxious to mend fences with the world's sole superpower.

Bush's visit will "symbolise the strong and enduring bonds of transatlantic cooperation that are stronger by far than any differences," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said after meetings with Rice.

Experts say one reason for Washington's change of heart over Europe is that the US administration has finally realised that it needs the EU and NATO help to deal with post-conflict Iraq.

"The US is rediscovering the need for friends and allies," says William Drozdiak, head of the American German Council in New York.

Europeans, for their part, are responding. NATO diplomats say all 26 alliance governments are now prepared to contribute to an expanded training operation for Iraqi security forces.

While some countries will send troops to Iraq to bolster the current NATO mission in the country, others like Germany will train Iraqi security personnel outside Iraq or contribute financially to the operation.

Breaking with their past reticence on the issue, EU governments have also said they will undertake a first-ever collective police training mission for Iraq.

The program to train around 800 senior Iraqi judges, police and other officials is, however, expected to take place outside the country due to security concerns. The EU also said it wants to play a role in helping Iraq draft a new constitution.

Diplomats also expect agreement on efforts to secure elusive Middle East peace.

But areas of dissent remain. Rice cautioned the EU against lifting a 15-year-old arms embargo against China, saying the move could destabilise the military balance in Asia.

The Bush administration is also sceptical of efforts by Germany, France and Britain to find a diplomatic way out of the current nuclear standoff with Iran.

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