Bush fails to close gap with EU

By George Parker, James Harding and Daniel Dombey in Brussels

Financial Times

Published: February 23 2005

President George W. Bush on Tuesday night completed a two-day charm offensive in Brussels but failed to narrow the divide with European Union leaders over arms sales to China, tactics towards Iran or the future of Nato.

The US president's visit ended with mutual back-slapping with José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, pronouncing the end of almost three years of transatlantic discord over Iraq. “Europe and America have reconnected,” Mr Barroso said.

But Mr Bush's visit to EU and Nato headquarters yielded few concrete results, and left some US officials privately warning that they expected positive gestures in return from the Europeans. The disagreements were pronounced over the EU's plan to lift its arms embargo against China later this year.

“There is deep concern in our country that a transfer of weapons would be a transfer of technology to China which would change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan,” Mr Bush said. He added that if the EU proceeded it needed to “sell it to the US Congress”. US lawmakers have threatened to restrict technology transfers from America to Europe if the EU embargo is lifted.

On Iran, Mr Bush said that he had received “good advice” from European partners, who are trying to win guarantees that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons through a mix of diplomacy and economic incentives. But Jacques Chirac, French president, and Gerhard Schröder, German chancellor, failed to persuade him to open the way to allowing Iran to join the World Trade Organisation and buy civil aircraft engines.

Mr Bush said: “The notion that the US is getting ready to attack Iran is ridiculous.” After a pause, he added: “Having said that, all options are on the table.”

There were also disagreements over the extent to which the US should talk to Europe through the EU, and sideline Nato, the traditional forum for the western alliance.

In spite of those differences, Tuesday's meetings between Mr Bush and EU leaders at the European Council and European Commission were cordial and constructive. “We have agreed to bury the hatchet over Iraq,” said one Bush administration official.