Transatlantic trip

On his first day in Europe, Bush offers soothing words but no substantive policy changes.

Published February 22, 2005 3:20PM (EST)

George W. Bush attempted to draw a line under the most acrimonious transatlantic split in a generation Monday by reaching out to Europe over the Middle East, climate change and the common values that bind the two continents. Declaring that the United States stands "proudly" in the tradition of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Bush won applause when he told an invited audience in Brussels: "When Europe and America stand together, no problem can stand against us."

On the first day of a three-nation trip that sees him make his first visit to the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels, Bush said he backed the search by the E.U.'s 25 member states for "democratic unity."

"America supports a strong Europe because we need a strong partner in the hard work of advancing freedom in the world." Pointedly reaching out to "old Europe," he dined Monday night with French President Jacques Chirac, who championed the European opposition to the Iraq war. When a French reporter asked Bush whether relations had improved to the point where the U.S. president could invite Chirac to his ranch in Texas, Bush joked: "I'm looking for a good cowboy."

In a 32-minute speech in the ornate surroundings of the 19th century Concert Noble hall in Brussels, Bush made more substantial concessions to his former European critics. On the Middle East, he pledged American help toward implementing the road map to peace. In a warning to Israel, Bush won applause when he said: "Israel must freeze settlement activity ... and ensure that a new Palestinian state is truly viable, with contiguous territory on the West Bank. A state of scattered territories will not work."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will talk about the Middle East in the formal setting of an E.U. summit with Bush Tuesday, is understood to have welcomed the president's assurance that Washington does not want a future Palestinian state to consist of South African-style "bantustans."

The great and the good of Europe, many of whom were invited to hear Bush's speech, appeared pleased when he addressed the sensitive issue of climate change. Conscious that he was one of the few people in the hall to have rejected the Kyoto protocol, the president went out of his way to find common ground. Using a refrain that cropped up throughout the speech about "our alliance," Bush said: "Our alliance is determined to show good stewardship of the earth -- and that requires addressing the serious, long-term challenges of global climate change. All of us expressed our views on the Kyoto protocol -- and now we must work together on the way forward."

But his conciliatory words fell short of offering substantive change on policy. Similarly, Bush offered guarded support for Europe's diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon any plans to build a nuclear bomb. But he made clear that military action was still an option. "In safeguarding the security of free nations, no option can be taken permanently off the table," he said. "Iran, however, is different from Iraq. We're in the early stages of diplomacy ... We're working closely with Britain, France and Germany ... The results of this approach now depend largely on Iran."

On Iraq, Bush made no attempt to hide the divisions. "Some European nations joined the fight to liberate Iraq, while others did not," he said in a deliberately bland passage.

Bush was given a taste of European anger when thousands of people staged a noisy protest outside the U.S. Embassy. Amid the blast of fireworks and the banging of drums, around 1,000 demonstrators from 88 different groups held flags with demands that included calls to leave Cuba and Iran alone.

By Nicholas Watts

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