Bush's visit to Brussels is vital opportunity for reconciliation

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The Independent US

An international conference on support for the Iraqi government is likely to be announced next week as the European Union and the US seek to turn President George Bush's visit to Brussels into a carefully managed symbol of reconciliation.

An international conference on support for the Iraqi government is likely to be announced next week as the European Union and the US seek to turn President George Bush's visit to Brussels into a carefully managed symbol of reconciliation.

Mr Bush arrives tomorrow night in Belgium for two days of talks with EU and Nato heads of government and the European Commission. His visit is seen by both sides as a vital opportunity to mend trans-Atlantic relations, which touched a nadir over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The moment is unexpectedly propitious, with developments in both Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict bringing the sides together. Last month's successful Iraq elections have finally moved the focus from past arguments to future possibilities, while a new glimmer of hope has emerged for the Middle East, after the death of Yasser Arafat and the Israeli plans for a withdrawal of its settlements from Gaza.

Not least too, no new US military adventure in in the offing. To the intense relief of Europe, Mr Bush has made clear he will seek diplomatic solutions to the confrontations with Iran and North Korea, while the tough talk against Syria stops well short of a threat to use force. "We have been through a bumpy patch," said one EU official. "This will be getting back to business as usual. This is a US effort to reach out to its friends and allies."

Though France and Germany remain adamant that they will not send troops to Iraq, both countries are backing the new government, as is the Commission. One of the key tasks will be developing the country's civil institutions, as well as raising funds for reconstruction. But, in this summit more than most others, atmospherics will be everything.

"Most important is a new tone," said Susan Rice of the Brookings Institution in Washington, pointing to the widespread European distrust of Mr Bush that predates the Iraq invasion. This month's trip by Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, went off well.

Many in Washington as well as Europe remain to be convinced that the US approach has changed from the "take it or leave it" style of Mr Bush's first term - where "consultation" meant the US informed its allies of what it was going to do.

This week Stephen Hadley, the White House national security adviser, spoke of a "common agenda" between the EU and the US, but whether the Bush administration is prepared to give as well as take, is still unclear, for all the professions of good intent. EU diplomats admit continuing differences with the US, particularly on issues such as the plans to lift the EU's arms embargo on China and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. But both parties will put more emphasis on areas of agreement, including the Middle East peace process - on which Tony Blair will speak at Tuesday's formal EU/US summit session.

On Iran, the EU is seeking more public support from Washington for its diplomatic initiative to engage with Tehran, its preferred method of dissuading the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Brussels, which recently resumed a trade dialogue with Tehran, wants the US to lift is opposition to negotiations over possible World Trade Organisation membership for Iran. One official conceded that there is a "difference" on that issue, adding: "There are benefits [in Iran gaining WTO membership] in terms of economic reform and entrepreneurship. This is not a free gift; negotiations are bruising affairs."

The US wants the Europeans to hold Iran's feet to the fire in the "EU3" negotiations (Britain, France and Germany), an exercise of which Washington is deeply sceptical. On Syria, it wants Europe to turn the screw on Damascus, which it accuses of helping the insurgents in Iraq, and suppressing the people's will in Lebanon.

THE ISSUES

IRAQ

* The EU wants a greater role for the UN in Iraq, to help politically in countries that opposed the war. European leaders offer an end to acrimony in exchange for helping reconstruct and train Iraq's civilian administration.

* The US wants unqualified international support for the new Iraqi government and more on-the-spot help for training Iraqi security forces. But Washington accepts more countries are likely to scale back or withdraw their peace-keeping contingents.

IRAN/SYRIA

* The EU wants more consultation and backing from Washington over the negotiations with Iran, led by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary and his counterparts from France and Germany. It wants more openness from the US to a trade relationship with Tehran.

* The US wants the Europeans to hold Iran's feet to the fire in the "EU3" negotiations, an exercise of which Washington is deeply sceptical. It wants Europe to turn the screw on Syria, which it accuses of helping insurgents in Iraq, and suppressing the people in Lebanon.

KYOTO

* The EU wants a dialogue with the US about what happens after the treaty expires in 2012 and about developing technologies to combat global warming.

* The US wants joint initiatives to curb emissions and develop anti-pollution technologies. It is starting to admit a problem exists.

CHINA

* The EU wants to lift its 1989 arms embargo against China, imposed after Tiananmen Square. It is offering consultation on the transfer of sensitive technologies.

* The US is wary of lifting the embargo. It worries about strengthening China in its confrontation with Taiwan. In the longer run, it fears Europe is seeking a partnership with China, as a counterbalance to America's power.

MIDDLE EAST

* The EU wants energetic backing from the Americans for the ongoing and fragile peace process. The EU recognises that no settlement can be reached without Washington pushing hard. The EU wants more stress on trade, to build wealth and stability in the "wider Middle East".

* The US wants European support as it tries to use the present opening for progress towards a Palestinian/Israeli settlement. But it is unlikely to put the pressure on Israel that Europe believes is essential. Americans perceive Europe as having an excessive and unhelpful pro-Palestinian tilt.

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