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US-EU Summit to Discuss Differences on Mideast, Trade - 2002-04-30

Growing transatlantic cooperation on terrorism may be overshadowed by policy differences with regard to the Middle East and a major trade dispute over steel when European Union leaders meet Thursday with President Bush in Washington at the annual U.S-EU summit. The summit takes place against a backdrop of tension over mutual perceptions that the United States is given to acting unilaterally and that the Europeans are too soft on the Palestinians and Iraq. The Middle East is expected to dominate the summit's agenda. It is an issue that divides Europeans and Americans despite public efforts by both sides, to present a united front.

Anger is growing in Washington over what some U.S. officials and lawmakers see as excessive European sympathy for the Palestinians in their struggle with Israel. But Europeans are frustrated at what they view as U.S. indulgence towards Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his hard-line military crackdown on what he calls terrorist networks in the West Bank.

European Commission President Romano Prodi, who, together with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, will head the EU delegation to the summit, told reporters Tuesday in Brussels that he applauds the U.S.-brokered deal to end the Israeli siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. But he says Israel's blocking of a United Nations fact-finding mission from probing the Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp is not acceptable.

Mr. Prodi says that if the Israeli army has nothing to hide, there is no reason for it to delay the start of the U.N. mission. He says this is a chance for Israel to show that it has nothing to hide.

Israel says it fears what it calls an anti-Israeli bias on the part of the United Nations that will be reflected in any report produced by the mission. Israel denies Palestinian allegations of a massacre at the Jenin camp.

Mr. Prodi also says he will urge President Bush to press the Israelis to withdraw completely from the West Bank and allow full and unhindered access for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. But he is also demanding that Mr. Arafat do everything possible to halt Palestinian suicide attacks on Israelis.

Europe has been skittish about any U.S. bid to use the war on terror as grounds for a possible attack on Iraq. Mr. Prodi says the subject of Iraq is not on Thursday's agenda, but he acknowledges being worried that any military action against Baghdad might undermine the global anti-terror coalition.

Washington has moved to deflect any European talk of U.S. unilateralism by scheduling a meeting of the so-called quartet of major international players on the Middle East, right after the summit. The quartet brings together Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones told reporters in Brussels Monday that the United States is in constant consultation with its allies.

"We value very much the consultations with our European friends and allies. We do not think we are unilateralist in the least. Otherwise we wouldn't be here. We wouldn't have the quartet. We wouldn't have U.S.-EU summits. We wouldn't have NATO meetings. We are all over the place and in constant consultation with European friends and allies."

Ms. Jones says the United States hopes it can resolve another current irritant in transatlantic relations: the U.S. decision to apply tariffs of up to 30 percent on some imported steel products. The European Union is determined to press for compensation for losses its steelmakers will incur, or, if Washington refuses, retaliate by slapping tariffs on a range of U.S. exports.

The EU has gone to the World Trade Organization to get the U.S. steel duties overturned, but that process could take at least a year. Mr. Prodi says he is confident the WTO will eventually rule against the United States, but he insists the EU has the right to impose sanctions beforehand.

He says he is disappointed at the U.S. decision to protect the American steel industry and questions whether the United States is really committed to WTO rules.

Despite these problems, the summit is expected to highlight moves to tighten U.S. and EU cooperation in the fight against terrorism by their law enforcement and financial agencies. Just last week, the EU announced it will negotiate extradition and judicial cooperation agreements with Washington. But that process is likely to be slow because of European opposition to the death penalty and the possibility that Washington will use military tribunals to try non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism.

Viewing the overall U.S.-European relationship, EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten describes it as an indispensable partnership with both sides working effectively together most of the time.

"Inevitably, there are disputes and irritants from time to time, but I think it's important to remember the fact that, over the great body of issues, we see eye to eye, and that is hugely to the benefit of the rest of the global community."

Despite current difficulties, U.S. officials mirror Mr. Patten's comment, agreeing that there is a large body of evidence to show that Washington and Brussels are on the same wavelength most of the time.