USA-EU Summit Bush Brings Charm Offensive to Vienna
Protesters in Vienna were raging outside, but inside US President George W. Bush turned on the charm. He even threw a bone to Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel: Guantanamo, Bush said, should be closed. But he didn't give a deadline for doing so.
Their voices roar through the megaphone: "George Bush," a young, red-haired girl yells, "your body guards may protect you, but you're not safe on the streets anymore." It's boiling hot in Vienna on Wednesday -- and there's thunder in the skies.
"Burn, burn USA," she hollers, staring firmly out at the hundreds of Viennese students gathered on Maria-Theresien-Platz -- a square located across from the Hofburg Imperial Palace, once home to the Hapsburg dynasty. "Burn, burn USA," they echo back. An American flag is sprawled out on the ground and they start to pour gasoline on it. The girl lights a match. The flag burns and the crowd's jubilation is downright deafening. Throughout the city, police estimated 15,000 people turned out to protest the president's visit. Among the protestors in Vienna was Cindy Sheehan, who famously held a vigil near Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, demanding that the president speak to her following the death of her son in Iraq.
As the protesters chanted, their Bogeyman schmoozed European and Austrian leaders just 800 meters away in a hermetically sealed area. Before Bush's arrival here on Tuesday, the entire area around the monumental Hofburg had been completely sealed off and close to 300 businesses in the area were also forced to shut down for the duration of the summit.
In the run-up to the meeting, Austria's conservative Christian Democratic chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel was nervous. One word: Guantanamo. Three suicides. Deep skepticism in Austria and across Europe of Bush's policies. Indeed, in recent days the political opposition and media have put extreme pressure on Schüssel to remind the US of its responsibility to respect the human rights of prisoners at the US prison camp in Cuba. It would have been a symbolic act, of course. But it would have been one way for Schüssel to polish his foreign policy image, which took a beating during his country's EU presidency during the past six months.
But in the end, Bush leant Schüssel a helping hand. Indeed, he was free-flowing in his friendly, symbolic gestures to the Austrians and the Europeans. He extensively expressed his desire to close the Guantanamo camp. And he brought up the issue himself - Schüssel didn't even have to mention it. Still, all he offered was a symbolic gesture -- Bush sees no possibility of closing the prison camp in the short-term. But his statements were very clear: "I'd like to end Guantanamo. I'd like it to be over with."
For his part, Schüssel's mood had already been boosted when Bush first addressed him as "Mister Chancellor," but then corrected himself: "I call him Wolfgang." Schüssel seemed relieved by Bush's statements. Eased, Schüssel talked up the "constructive role of President Bush" in his policies on Iran. Speaking English with an Austrian accent, he said, yes, "we admire that."
Iran, North Korea and that prickly issue called trade
Bush also got what he was looking for in Vienna: Support for his position against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and for a "common front with the Europeans." Iran must now make the "right choice" and agree to the compromise offer which has been made by the West -- Schüssel and Bush said together.
Nevertheless, prospects for any quick deal with Tehran don't look very promising at the moment. Earlier Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said Iran would not respond to the European offer prior to Aug. 22. "It should not take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal," Bush jousted back. "I said weeks, not months."
Another prickly foreign policy was also at play at the meeting: North Korea's decision on Tuesday to scrap a 1999 pledge not to test long-range missiles. "It should make people nervous when a non-transparent regime that has proclaimed they have nuclear warheads fires missiles," Bush said.
During a press conference after the summit, one Austrian reporter confronted Bush with poll figures showing that the majority of Europeans feel he is a bigger threat than Tehran. "That's absurd!" the president said. The Austrian chancellor also jumped to his defense, saying: "It's quite grotesque to say America is a threat to peace in the world, compared to North Korea or Iran."
During his visit to Vienna, Bush also sought to underscore recent efforts to improve US-European relations, which were badly frayed after Washington's unilateral decision in 2003 to invade Iraq against the wishes of many European countries, led by Germany and France. "I fully understand we have had our differences on Iraq," he said, "and what is ahead is a hopeful democracy in the Middle East."
Trade also played a role at the summit. The EU and Washington are still at odds over how to expand a trade round started at the World Trade Organization summit in Doha, Qatar, in 2001. Both sides are bickering over how and whether protections for farmers should be reduced or eliminated. The Doha round was launched in 2001 in an effort to boost the global economy and aid poor countries. Both sides want larger developing countries like Brazil to do more to open up their markets in industrial goods and services.
"The Europeans have problems with the US position, we have problems with the European position, we both have problems with the G20 (group of developing countries) position," Bush said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he believed a deal could still be reached before the next round of negotiations begins in Geneva on June 29. But others, including EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, are less sanguine. "I can't foresee what will happen," Mandelson said according to Reuters.
The European and the Americans secured deals in other policy areas during the summit. The EU and US plan to expand cooperation in the field of education. The goal is to create joint degree programs, student exchange programs and easier recognition of degrees from students in the US and Europe. The EU said it would make 45 million available for such programs.
At the end, what many thought would be an inconsequential working meeting turned out to be anything but. After the summit meeting, European Commission President Barroso said: "This was no working meeting - we thought very vocally about the future."
With reporting by Sebastian Fischer in Vienna and material from AP and Reuters.