He came, he saw, he conquered … nothing. He had french fries and Napa Valley wine with French President Jacques Chirac, listened without blinking to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in his earphones, was introduced to hundreds of European Union (EU) leaders, officials and diplomats, even attended two summits, by the EU and by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

President George W. Bush uttered the words “European Union” only for the first time at his inaugural address last month: before that, the EU was nothing but a nuisance. Now he’s been to Brussels on his “freedom agenda” conceptual trip, and has had a crash course on what the EU is all about. Brussels, diplomats tell Asia Times Online, was not impressed.

The 25 EU member countries firmly spoke with one voice. That meant in practice that everywhere he went in Brussels, Bush could not escape the core of “old Europe” – France and Germany, not by accident the core of the EU. It was Chirac who personally explained to Bush the meaning of European integration, what the European constitution is about, and crucially what European defense and foreign policy stand for – concepts that are anathema to many in Washington.

Implicitly, Chirac made it clear to the neo-conservatives: “old Europe,” this mirage concocted by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld that served to stigmatize opponents of the invasion of Iraq, is in real life an increasingly integrated, powerful bloc. For his part, it was Schroeder – in a presentation prepared in tandem with Chirac – who explained to Bush how the US must offer “a gesture of goodwill,” in the words of a diplomat, like supporting their entry in the World Trade Organization, to get results from a nuclear negotiation with Iran.

EU leaders never had any illusion in the first place. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her turn-on-the-charm European tour before Bush, had laid down the law: we want democracy in the Middle East and trade, not the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol. Javier Solana, the EU’s top diplomat, had already admitted publicly that “they won’t change, and neither will we, so we might as well forget it.”

Bush’s trip may have been to Brussels, but it was all about Asia (China) and the Middle East (Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Iran). Bush insisted at all stops he now wants a “partnership” with Europe: Chirac and Schroeder, on the record, praised the new tune, but their diplomats insist that only facts will test the rhetoric. “It may be the same wine in a different bottle,” quipped a diplomat. Bush certainly did not engage in his trademark born-again Christian fundamentalist rap that makes cultured Europeans cringe. But he insisted he wants to see “an arc of reform from Morocco to Bahrain, passing through Iraq and Afghanistan”, which for many a European still means regime change by force.

What the EU wants

On Iraq, the EU – via France and Germany – made it clear that it will contribute to the training of Iraqi civilians and security forces, but only outside of Iraqi territory. This is the EU’s official offer to Bush, and it’s non-negotiable. Heavy-handed pressure from Washington from now on is also out of the question. Former “new Europe” states like Poland and Hungary want to make sure they can withdraw their troops from Bush’s “coalition of the willing” without getting slapped with myriad sanctions by Washington.

On Iran, EU diplomacy is convinced it has the best tactical approach, but as Solana has stressed, Washington must support Brussels and not engage in daily regime change, we’re-going-to-bomb-you neo-con rhetoric. Paris, Berlin, London and Washington all agree that Iran should not have a nuclear bomb. But the negotiations are extremely complex: the Europeans are offering a package of commercial and technological advances, while Iranian negotiators keep saying the Europeans don’t mean it and are always pushing the envelope. What EU diplomats basically want, in the words of a Spanish representative, is a commitment from the US to let them do their job, “without being ridiculed and undermined at every turn. Besides, we are all united that if Washington wants to force regime change on Tehran, they will have to go it alone.”

Bush in Brussels vaguely “encouraged” the EU’s diplomatic approach, but he didn’t endorse it – ringing alarm bells in every diplomatic desk, just as former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter revealed in the US that Bush had personally signed an order for an air attack on Iran planned for next June. But some more optimistic diplomats, taking Rice and Bush at their word, agree that the EU’s step-by-step strategy may suit Washington for the moment because “as they have admitted, they are not contemplating a military strike against Iran.”

On Lebanon, Paris and Washington agree that Syria must withdraw its troops – but once again that does not mean the EU supports regime change in Damascus by force. Paris, especially, does not want any semblance of confrontation with Syria; and crucially it’s the official EU position to totally delink the Lebanon problem from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, the EU definitely will not list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization: this was discussed in depth before Bush’s visit at the Clearing House, an EU unit that reviews terrorism in Europe. The Europeans know too well the important political role Hezbollah plays in Lebanon.

On the Middle East, the EU wants the quartet – the United Nations, the US, the EU and Russia – to quickly restart the road map. As the No 1 financial supporter of Palestine, the EU wants, in the words of a diplomat, to “equally share with the US their participation in the Israeli-Palestinian future”; in the same breath, the EU absolutely refuses the American project of having NATO securing the peace in the American-denominated “Greater Middle East.”

On China, Bush once again warned against the EU abandoning its embargo on arms sales. EU diplomats are unanimous in stressing that the Americans are leading a “disinformation campaign” because “Israel sells more weapons to China than anyone else.” Both France and the UK also sell a lot of weapons to China, so it was up to British Premier Tony Blair to spell out the facts to Bush. The EU, moreover, has a complex code that actually prevents a significant raise in euro terms of weapons sold.

Here’s the message cowboy

As a public relations exercise, Bush in Brussels was carefully coordinated by Washington to convey to the world the impression that Bush II needs Europe to fulfill his self-imposed mission. But the EU made it clear: forget about a dependent relationship between a hyperpower and its vassals. Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission – a pro-American – put it nicely as “America needs Europe and Europe needs America.” But skepticism remains the name of the game in Brussels: “Style may have changed, but not substance,” warns a diplomat. “We know the neo-conservatives remain at the core of the new Bush administration, formulating policy. With these people, dialogue is impossible. They are ideologues, and the EU has no ideology.”

So the EU has chosen to deliver Bush a very clear message. If he wants a real “partnership” with Europe, he will have to deal directly with the heart of the EU, France and Germany. On Lebanon, Chirac got direct support from Bush for a UN investigation on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri: this means there will be no American moves in the UN Security Council, at least in the short term, to impose sanctions on Syria. The EU as a whole is against sanctions. On US moves to attack Iran, Bush said this was a “ridiculous” proposition, but he has also said that “all options remain open.” The EU stressed that in this case the US will go it alone. Chirac, the old, wily operator, seems to have figured it all out. He seems to be almost convinced that Bush wants a real partnership with Europe. “But only the future will tell us if I’m wrong.”


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