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US vice-president on goodwill mission in Brussels

  • Pence (l) to Tusk (r): US commitment to the EU remains "steadfast and enduring". (Photo: Consilium)

[UPDATED at 19.00 on Monday 20 February] The US vice-president Mike Pence gave Europeans what they wanted to hear during a visit to Brussels on Monday (20 February), but disagreements are likely to remain.

"Today it is my privilege on behalf of president Trump to express the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union," Pence said after meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk.

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Despite Trump's strong criticism of the EU and support of Brexit, the US commitment remains "steadfast and enduring", the vice-president said in a press conference with Tusk.

He added that the EU and the US "share the same heritage, the same values and above all the same purpose: to promote peace and prosperity through freedom, democracy and rule of law".

Meeting European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker moments later, Pence also insisted on "the determination of the United States to continue to build on cooperation and partnership with the European community and with the European Union".

The US vice-president, who is usually seen as more moderate than Trump, also reassured the EU on three issues raised by Tusk during their meeting - the international order, security and the attitude of the new American administration towards the EU.

"In reply to these three matters, I heard today from vice-president Pence three times 'yes'," Tusk said, after a meeting that, according to an EU source, was "cordial and constructive" and lasted longer than expected.

In particular, Tusk said, Pence assured him that the EU could count on "the United States' wholehearted and unequivocal, let me repeat, unequivocal support for the idea of a united Europe."

"After such a positive declaration, both Europeans and Americans must simply practice what they preach," Tusk further added, suggesting that Pence's goodwill message was not enough yet to dispel all concerns and disagreements.

The European Council chief noted that "too much has happened over the past months … for us to pretend that everything is as it used to be".

A week after the US defense secretary James Mattis warned Nato members that “no longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defence of western values." Security was one of the main topics discussed in Brussels.

"Let us discuss everything, starting with financial commitments - but only to strengthen our solidarity, never to weaken it," Tusk said in response to Mattis.

He said that defense of a world order "based on the rules of international law" was in the West's interest and that it could "only be enforced through a common, mutually supportive and decisive policy of the whole of the Western community."

Before his meeting with Pence, Juncker pointed out that the EU was ready to step up its defense effort, but "in a broad understanding of what stability in the world means".

As he did last week, Juncker suggested that US views were narrow and insisted that for the EU, security not only included defence expenditures, but also humanitarian and development aid.

Referring to a comment made by Trump last month, Tusk insisted that "the idea of Nato is not obsolete, just like the values which lay at its foundation are not obsolete."

Hold Russia accountable

In a nod to EU eastern countries, Pence said that the US and EU must "stand strong in defence of sovereignty and integrity of nations in Europe" and cited Nato's effort to support Poland and the Baltic states.

Later in the day, at a visit to Nato's headquarters, Pence was more blunt, saying that "European defense requires European commitment as much as ours" and that Trump "expects real progress by the end of 2017".

Pence also tried to reassure Europeans by saying that, regarding Ukraine, the US would "continue to hold Russia accountable". He did not mention any intention to suspend sanctions towards Russia, but called on both Ukraine and Russia to respect the Minsk peace agreement.

Without elaborating, he added that the US would "also search in new ways for new common ground with Russia, which president Trump believes can be found".

Divergences over the new US administration's trade policy are also likely to remain, with the TTIP trade agreement now "frozen", according to the EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem.

Commercial relations between the EU and the US were discussed in talks between Juncker and Pence, which a commission spokesman called "a good meeting"

"The US economy depends more than some in the US think on the exchanges, the trade volumes - including with Indiana - between the US and the EU," Juncker said, referring to the US state where Pence was governor until last year.

Pence "reaffirmed" the US "commitment to free, fair and flourishing economies that undergird our success and cooperation on achieving that".

'Hard choices'

But he went on to warn of "hard but necessary choices" ahead to maintain prosperity and insisted that "renewed growth means improved peace and prosperity for all", suggesting that trade relations would depend on the level of cooperation on security.

The US vice-president called on "greater coordination and intelligence sharing" between his country and its EU partners, adding that their "safety and security… depends on increased cooperation".

For EU leaders, however, Pence's visit was an opportunity to ease tensions and start relations on a personal level. "After today's talks it will be easier," Tusk noted.

"I don't think the moment has come to divide the United States and the European Union," Juncker assured. "We are partners for so many years."

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