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Bush and Europe reach out to each other

It was a positive week for European-American relations and it looks like transatlantic relations have been boosted, even if differences remain between the two sides. In his first overseas trip since his re-election, President George Bush visited Brussels where he met NATO and EU heads of government and where he had a private meeting with French President Jacques Chirac. He then met German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Mainz, Germany, followed by a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia.

There can be no doubt at all that both the United States and Europe want to open a new chapter in their relations. José Manuel Barroso, the EU Commission President, remarked after his meeting with Mr Bush that "Europe and America have reconnected". European leaders and the American President went out of their way to sound conciliatory, to warm up to each other and to stress that the US and Europe share common values and goals. For example there is certainly a consensus that a peaceful, stable and democratic Iraq is in everyone's interest irrespective of the fact that many European countries opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Mr Bush's keynote foreign policy speech in Brussels was largely welcomed by European and NATO leaders, especially when he said that the US supported a strong and united Europe. This gave the impression that the Bush administration was no longer keen on exploiting divisions within Europe, as it did over the war in Iraq, such as when Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to 'old' and 'new' Europe.

Mr Bush will certainly need all the help he could get from a united Europe as he faces some of his most difficult foreign policy challenges such as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and bringing about peace and stability in Iraq and the Middle East.

During his speech President Bush also said the right things about Europe's role in Ukraine, where he praised the EU for putting pressure on Kiev to respect the will of the Ukrainian people and for accelerating moves towards full democracy. He also made it clear that Iran was not Iraq and that "we are in the early stages of diplomacy" with the Islamic Republic. He also emphasised that the US might become impatient if European diplomacy fails to achieve the desired results. However, it does seem that Mr Bush's meetings with his European allies in Brussels has led to a convergence on how to deal with Iran, at least for now.

Mr Bush also emphasised that the EU and the US both want Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, that NATO remains the man pillar of America's security and that the US needs Europe to advance democracy in Russia and the Middle East.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy representative commented after the President's speech: "We are very happy. The agenda the President outlined is a common agenda." Marcel van Herpen, director of the Cicero Foundation, a European think-tank, remarked: "It is more than a window dressing. There is a coming together of the two sides and a will among the Europeans, especially the French, to mend fences with the US. It is deeper than many people think it is."

The fact that Mr Bush and President Chirac had a private dinner together in Brussels on the first day of the US President's trip is highly significant. One senior American official described their meeting as the best ever, "warm by any measure". France had led Europe's opposition to the war in Iraq and as a result had seen its links with Washington strained.

Now, however, the two leaders seemed to want to put this chapter behind them and stressed the co-operation between the two countries such as their joint effort at securing a UN Security Council resolution, urging Syria to end its military presence in Lebanon. There is no doubt that French influence within the EU declined as a result of Europe's division over Iraq and Mr Chirac has been trying to mend fences with the US ever since.

During Mr Bush's trip to Brussels the French President described both Franco-American relations and transatlantic ties as "excellent". France, of course, needs good ties to the US in order to improve its standing with the rest of its EU partners, especially the eight new EU member states from Eastern and Central Europe.

On the question of Iraq, the US and Europe seem to be moving towards a common position. President Bush asked for help in making Iraq a stable democracy and one senior Bush administration official told the press that during the President's meetings at Nato and the European Council and Commission "we agreed to bury the hatchet over Iraq". That is certainly good news because the rift over Iraq caused the biggest strain on transatlantic relations in the entire post-war period. Another potential rift, such as one over Iran, should be avoided at all costs.

NATO's 26 leaders also promised to provide 160 military trainers for Iraq's security forces and pledged €4 million in funds for training and equipment. This might be symbolic but it is a good start and comes in addition to €200 million pledged by the EU in reconstruction funds.

The meeting between President Bush and Mr Schröder in Mainz also seems to have gone well with both sides trying to put their differences behind them. Mr Bush showed a new willingness to support the diplomatic efforts of France, Britain and Germany in Iran and he thanked Germany for helping in the training of Iraq's military and for forgiving Iraq's debt. Mr Schröder thanked Mr Bush for coming to Mainz, a city Mr Bush's father had visited in 1989 where he had hailed Germany as a partner in leadership. So once, again, we are witnessing an effort at reconciliation between the US and a major European power. There may be an amount of symbolism here, but such symbolism should not be dismissed.

After meeting President Putin in Slovakia the US President remarked: "I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal (democratic) principles. I did so in a friendly and constructive way." Dealing with Russia is not easy and, as always, a balance must be found between promoting full democracy in that country and recognising Russia for what it is, namely a key player - and partner - in the international community which has a major role in bringing about peace and stability throughout the world.

It is too early to say whether the transatlantic alliance has been restored to its former state, but Mr Bush's European trip has certainly helped to improve things. Yes, differences remain such as America's opposition to the lifting of the EU's arms embargo on China and the role of the EU and NATO in security matters, but a good start has been made, and this should be welcomed by everybody.

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