Bush finds it hot in Europe

Many Europeans see the U.S. as a nation totally absorbed by its own interests and ready to go it alone if its allies fail to come to heel. VAIJU NARAVANE on Mr. George Bush's tour of the Old Continent.

RIOTING AND looting in Sweden, violent demonstrations in Madrid, vitriolic editorials in almost all European papers - the U.S. President Mr. George W. Bush, could not have chosen a worse time to make his first appearance on the European stage.

As he propagated his ultra-liberal, anti-regulation, pro- business, free-market views at the European Summit in Gothenburg, police fought pitched battles against several thousand very angry young protesters who, denouncing Mr. Bush's position on everything from capital punishment and the environment to globalisation and strategic defence, went on a rampage attacking what they described as ``symbols of the capitalist economy''.

The extent and violent nature of the protests coupled with scorching comment from most European papers underlined the divergent directions in which Europe and the U.S. appear to be moving. Many Europeans today see the U.S. as a nation totally absorbed by its own interests and ready to go it alone if its allies fail to come to heel. ``The Bush administration is seen as isolationist, unilateralist and aggressive, totally taken up by its own self-interest,'' commented Ms. Dominique Moisi, of IFRI, the French Institute for International Relations.

European media greeted Mr. Bush's debut on the Old Continent with headlines such as ``Mr. Death Penalty'', the ``Toxic Texan'' or the ``Three B President'', meaning all he swore by was baseball, barbecues and the Bible. Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, his visit to Europe, just a day after Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh's execution, began in Madrid in unusually adverse circumstances. A 30-year-old Spaniard had just returned home after spending three years on death row in Florida. His conviction for a double murder was overturned and Spanish media went to town lambasting the visitor who, as Governor of Texas for six years, was responsible for allowing 152 executions to take place.

To the surprise of many Americans, the death penalty has emerged in recent years as one of the most serious ethical conflicts between Europe and the U.S. No country can join the European Union unless it has abolished capital punishment and Europeans, who view the death penalty as a human rights rather than a justice issue, say the U.S. is no better than China, Iran or Iraq, states it regularly pillories for human rights abuses. Mr. Bush's essentially ``each to his own'' response cut little ice with them.

But besides highly-charged, emotional issues such as the death penalty or genetically modified crops, there were several hard issues on the agenda, the most important being U.S. plans to create a ballistic missile defence system. Mr. Bush described the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty as a ``relic of the past'' and declared his intention to go ahead, albeit in consultation with his European allies, with building a missile defence shield. Even after a tough sales pitch in Brussels during which he claimed his NATO partners had displayed ``a new receptivity'', European leaders, especially from France and Germany, continued to express qualms about whether it would trigger a new arms race, destroy the existing fabric of arms control treaties and be technically feasible.

Mr. Bush did succeed in convincing at least five nations - Spain, Italy, both led by conservative Governments, its ``special partner'' Britain, and two recent and overzealous converts to free market capitalism, Poland and Hungary. French diplomats say they would not be surprised by a U.S. attempt to drive a wedge between NATO's European members and to isolate France. ``The President has already talked of European firms getting a part of the spoils by way of contracts for building the missile defence shield. Handing out commercial carrots is another way to whittle down European opposition,'' one of them said.

The environment was also high on the agenda and the U.S. President was severely criticised for his outright rejection of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warning. Greenpeace and other environmental activists held a mock trial of Mr. Bush as a ``climate criminal'' and his high-handed manner only served to fuel outrage over what many see as the childishly selfish behaviour of an arrogant superpower.

Ms. Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Adviser, tried to downplay the perception of a ``values gap'' between the U.S. and Europe. ``Some say there is a strategic split. Some go a step further and posit that America and Europe are destined to become adversaries. The President and his administration fundamentally reject this premise. In many ways, the debate over a `values gap' between the United States and Europe is the kind of self- indulgent discussion that only the very successful and well-off can afford. The debate appears to take place in a vacuum, ignoring the important work still to be done to build the kind of Europe we known we want,'' she wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

However, several European commentators took the opposite view, many coming close to calling the President's abrasive style both ``brutish and brat-ish''. For the French daily Le Monde, it was as much a question of content as of style. ``American baby- boomers make up what is called the `me-generation' which lives by the `me first' philosophy,'' wrote the paper. ``Baby-boomer George Bush appears to apply this principle to his foreign policy and his ambition seems to be to transform the United States into a `me-nation' - a country essentially devoted to defending its own narrow national interest.'' This makes Mr. Bush's foreign policy a curious cocktail of unilateralism and nervous withdrawal, Le Monde said, echoing sentiment across the continent.