Bush calls on EU to 'draw line under' recent tensions

 

As he took the stage at the Concert Noble, a 19th-century concert hall in the centre of Brussels, President Bush let his audience know straight away that he knew just what they thought of him, writes Denis Staunton in Brussels

Recalling Benjamin Franklin's triumphant tour of Europe two centuries ago, Mr Bush quoted a contemporary account of the welcome the old revolutionary received.

"The observer went on to say, 'There was scarcely a peasant or a citizen who did not consider him as a friend to humankind.' I have been hoping for a similar reception but Secretary Rice told me I should be a realist."

The President's host yesterday was Belgium's Prime Minister, Mr Guy Verhofstadt, who briefly became a hate figure in Washington when he organised the Brussels "chocolate summit" of leaders opposed to the Iraq war in 2003.

Introducing Mr Bush to yesterday's audience of Belgian, EU and NATO dignitaries, Mr Verhofstadt played down the significance of their past disagreements.

"The time has come to draw a line under the tensions of the recent past. It makes little sense to continue arguing about who was right and who was wrong," he said.

Mr Bush was not only happy to draw a line under past disagreements but chose to ignore some current disputes too, making no mention of Washington's opposition to the EU's plan to lift its arms embargo on China.

The President struck the right tone for his European audience on most issues, however, winning warm applause for his clear expression of support for European unity.

"America supports Europe's democratic unity for the same reason we support the spread of democracy in the Middle East - because freedom leads to peace. And America supports a strong Europe because we need a strong partner in the hard work of advancing freedom in the world."

To the surprise of many in his European audience, Mr Bush quoted the French existentialist, Albert Camus, to the effect that "freedom is a long-distance race".

The Europeans appeared most uncomfortable when the President was talking about freedom - not because they oppose liberty as a concept but because they fear Mr Bush has a different idea of what it is.

At a meeting with EU leaders this afternoon, he will hear four-minute interventions from 10 of them, including the Taoiseach, on such issues as Iran, the environment and the future of Europe.