President Bush wakes up to the reality of Europe

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Almost more significant than where President Bush is going on his European journey this week is where he is not going. He is not going, for instance, to France to meet President Chirac. M. Chirac must bestir himself from the Elysée and go to dine with Mr Bush in Brussels. The US President is not going to Berlin, but he going to Germany (just), hopping over to Mainz to meet Chancellor Schröder for a few hours. He will also not be going to Moscow. But there will be an event that would until recently have warranted the name superpower mini-summit. Mr Bush and President Putin will meet each other in Slovakia: "new Europe" for Mr Bush; a Slavonic country that has never picked quarrels with Moscow for Mr Putin.

Almost more significant than where President Bush is going on his European journey this week is where he is not going. He is not going, for instance, to France to meet President Chirac. M. Chirac must bestir himself from the Elysée and go to dine with Mr Bush in Brussels. The US President is not going to Berlin, but he going to Germany (just), hopping over to Mainz to meet Chancellor Schröder for a few hours. He will also not be going to Moscow. But there will be an event that would until recently have warranted the name superpower mini-summit. Mr Bush and President Putin will meet each other in Slovakia: "new Europe" for Mr Bush; a Slavonic country that has never picked quarrels with Moscow for Mr Putin.

And, of course, he will not be coming anywhere near Britain. There is no political snub here: more a favour, in fact, born of the mutual recognition in Washington and London that a Bush visit would be too much of a liability for Mr Blair before an election. The current priority in British-US relations is distance. This is why we have recently heard rather loud condemnatory noises from British officials about regrettable US attitudes towards Kyoto. And why, perhaps, Peter Mandelson - EU trade commissioner and spinmeister extraordinaire - used his Brussels pulpit over the weekend to attack Mr Bush's negative attitude towards the European Union.

Except that Mr Mandelson may protest too much. From start to finish, the US President's European itinerary betrays an exercise in walking on diplomatic eggshells. His two-day stay in Brussels, though, may reflect something else. Successive US presidents have been sceptical about the European project, seeing only weakness and confusion in departments, such as the economy and defence, where America respects chiefly strength.

That Mr Bush is not only paying his customary visit to Nato, but also taking a short course in the ways of the EU should be a source of satisfaction in Brussels. The US may not abandon its efforts to sow discord between old Europe and new, but at least Mr Bush seems to recognise that the EU is an institution whose acquaintance is worth making.

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