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Munich Security Conference Could Signal New Era in US-EU Relations

The United States is sending a high-profile delegation to a key security conference that opened in Munich, Germany Friday, marking a new page in transatlantic relations under the Obama administration.

The conference, which runs from Friday through Sunday, is likely to tackle a number of key issues - from Afghanistan and the Middle East, to energy security, the Russia-Georgia conflict last year and U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.

Some heavy hitters are expected to attend, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO head Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. The Obama administration is also sending a high-ranking delegation headed by Vice President Joseph Biden.

Experts read this as signalling Washington wants to open a new page in transatlantic relations. Nick Witney, the former head of the European Defense Agency in Paris, says the Munich meeting is one marker ahead of an April NATO summit in France and Germany, in which President Obama is expected to attend.

"This is going to be a pretty momentous event," he said. "It will be the first Obama trip to Europe. It'll also be the occasion for France coming back into NATO after a 43-year absence. So that event is very much dominating the horizon at the moment.

Analysts believe the Munich conference will be an occasion for Washington to seek more European assistance in securing peace in the Middle East - and fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"I think we've had plenty of signals already from the Obama administration that they do want to reengage with the Europeans as serious international security partners," Witney said. "There is another side to that, of course, which Obama has made explicitly clear: He's naturally only going to take Europeans seriously if the Europeans take themselves seriously and are prepared to pull their weight in dealing with international security problems - the first of which of course is Afghanistan.

Iran's nuclear program is another critical issue - and the Obama administration has signalled it is willing to talk directly with Tehran. But Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, who is expected in Munich, has ruled out any talks with U.S. officials there.