Bush tries to repair battered US image

By Daniel Dombey and Edward Alden in Vienna

Financial Times

Published: June 22 2006

George W. Bush, US president, sought to repair America’s battered image in Europe on Wednesday by promising action on closing Guantánamo Bay and indicating a willingness to make trade concessions.

But he also responded angrily to European public fears that the US poses the greatest threat to global peace, dismissing opinion polls – including this week’s FT/Harris poll – as “absurd”.

In an emollient bridge-building performance at a summit with the European Union in Vienna’s Hofburg castle, Mr Bush underlined his recently stated goal of closing the US’s controversial detention centre in Guantánamo.

“I’d like to end Guantánamo; I’d like it to be over with,” he said, adding that he had shared with European leaders “my deep desire to end this programme”.

EU leaders extracted a White House pledge to accelerate the conclusion of a deal to free up transatlantic air travel, which has been blocked by the US Congress. “I hope we will reach finalisation of the air transport agreement . . .by the end of the year,” said José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president.

The summit capped a transformation in US-European relations that has seen Washington move closer to the EU on issues such as Iran and aid to the Palestinians, but which has left European public opinion unmoved – partly because of concerns over the mistreatment of detainees in the fight against terrorism.

European diplomats said they were favourably impressed by Mr Bush’s decision to bring up the issue of Guantánamo before it was raised by the Europeans. He said he faced a dilemma because of “international pressure” that made it difficult to repatriate prisoners, and because US courts have blocked plans to try some detainees before military commissions.

The US recently had to convince Albania to give asylum to five Chinese Muslims after their release from Guantánamo. The men feared persecution as an ethnic minority in China.

In spite of the warm mood at the summit, Mr Bush angrily dismissed polls in Europe on the threat posed by the US, saying “it’s absurd for people to think we’re more dangerous than Iran”. The FT/Harris poll conducted last week said 36 per cent of people in five European countries considered the US the biggest threat to world stability, ahead of Iran and China.

Mr Bush made conciliatory gestures on trade, indicating he would try to find a compromise to prevent failure of the “Doha round” world trade talks.

US farm lobby groups and their congressional allies have been urging the administration to let the talks fail rather than accept a deal that does not offer big new export opportunities for US farmers, which would require significant additional concessions by the EU. But Mr Bush said the leaders had “very frank discussions” that acknowledged problems on both sides.

“My view is we can’t let the round fail,” he added in a comment that contrasted with that of Susan Schwab, his new trade representative, who said failure was better than a bad deal.

Mr Barroso also stressed bilateral co-operation on issues such as developing a common energy security agenda, steps to protect intellectual property rights and a dialogue on climate change.