- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

The Bush administration yesterday told the 15-nation European Union it intends to eliminate one of the two scheduled annual summits, intensifying the strains in troubled trans-Atlantic relations.

The move comes just one week before President Bush flies to Sweden for his first meeting with the EU leaders.

The State Department, anxious that this not be interpreted as a humiliating downgrade, is trying to sweeten the pill by arguing that this will mean the annual summits will be more important in the future.

"By doing less, we´ll do it better," is the slogan U.S. diplomats are using to explain the change to EU ambassadors.

But the U.S. decision comes at a time when the Europeans are already nervous over what they view as unilateralist trends in American policies. These include Pentagon proposals to start withdrawing U.S. troops from the Balkans and to give Asian affairs the priority in U.S. foreign policy.

"It is remarkable to make the argument that the way to make our interactions with the Europeans more substantial is to meet less," said Ivo Daalder, former director of European affairs in the National Security Council under President Clinton.

Mr. Bush already faces a difficult baptism of fire at Gothenburg, Sweden, next week, with European allies unhappy with his proposals to build a missile defense system and openly angry at his rejection of the Kyoto protocol on global warming.

"Unless presented with great care, this decision to move to one summit a year could meet with an unfortunate reaction in Europe," one European ambassador told United Press International.

The European Union has not yet formally agreed to the truncated schedule, although few EU diplomats think there is any serious prospect of changing the White House´s mind.

Many assume the new annual summit arrangement will be announced publicly at the end of the Gothenburg meeting next week.

"It´s not 100 percent certain yet. We´ll know at the end of Gothenburg. But the Americans have asked us for this to be done. They think meeting once a year is enough," an EU official based in Washington told UPI.

"We are not sure how this will work. Either you go with a big agenda, prepared carefully and long in advance, or you hold an open discussion that concentrates intensively on just one or two hot issues. In any event, at the expert level and among permanent officials, people will continue to see each other and consult as intensively as they do now," the EU official said.

The twice-yearly EU-U.S. summits have been a fixture of the international scene since they were agreed to by the first President Bush in Paris in 1990.

The twice-yearly summits have been an irritation in the past. Former President Clinton was baffled in the autumn of 1997 to find that he was holding a summit with two officials from the tiny Duchy of Luxembourg, population 400,000, which then held the rotating presidency.

But once inscribed in the White House diplomatic calendar, the twice-yearly ritual proved difficult to end.

The United States will naturally prefer to cherry-pick the summit dates to ensure that the EU side is led by a major country like Germany, France or Britain.

The smaller EU countries, already wary of the influence of the big countries, will object to being excluded.

"Not only the Belgians are offended by this," Mr. Daalder said. "They have opened a whole can of worms."

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