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End of a special relationship?

By CNN's Graham Jones

LONDON, England -- Quizzical eyebrows have been raised in Europe over U.S. President George W. Bush's declaration of an "unprecedented closeness" with Mexico.

Bush declared on welcoming Mexican President Vicente Fox in a pomp-filled ceremony in the White House grounds that the U.S. had "no more important relationship in the world" than with Mexico.

Some White House correspondents said that by honouring Mexican President Vicente Fox ahead of European leaders by receiving him as his first state visitor to Washington, Bush was showing where his priorities lay.

Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper was in no doubt.

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"U.S. special relationship switched to Mexico," was the newspaper's headline on the story.

"Mr. Bush was using language more often associated with Britain, which most members of the U.S. armed forces and the majority of those in Congress still regard as America's principal ally," wrote the paper's Washington correspondent.

"But the Bush White House has made clear that Britain now stands only as one of several states with powerful claims to American friendship, rather than enjoying a 'special relationship'."

The paper noted that President Reagan's first official dinner was with then British PM Margaret Thatcher and one of President Clinton's first guests was the then PM John Major.

Britain's Press Association pointed out that it was Bush's fifth meeting with the Mexican leader since being elected president -- his first foreign visit being ... to Mexico.

In contrast the U.S. president has only had one official visit from British PM Tony Blair, at Camp David, and met him once in Britain and once at the G8 summit in Genoa.

"The starting point of a sound foreign policy is to build a safe and prosperous neighbourhood" Bush said at Wednesday's welcoming ceremony.

The Mexican leader was given a lavish State banquet, Bush's first, of Maryland Crab and Chorizo Pozole, Pepita Crusted Bison and Mi Sueno Chardonnay "Carneros" 1999 -- with guests including Placido and Marta Domingo, Clint and Dina Ruiz Eastwood, Emilio Estefan and the heads of Coca-Cola and Pepsico -- followed by an extravagent display of fireworks.

Before Fox even arrived the president had said: "He will be able to go back and tout a unique relationship."

Bush was handing his Mexican colleague a special honour by being the new administration's first official state visitor, Fox News White House correspondent Wendell Goler told PA.

"He is offering him an honour that has so far not been extended to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and others who in the past might have been considered closer U.S. allies," said Goler.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley says Bush's action will confirm EU leaders' fears there has been a sharp shift in U.S. focus towards Latin America and the Far East.

"Although he has reaffirmed his readiness to work with European leaders in the Balkans -- "in together, out together" -- Oakley says Bush is above all a superpower man.

"He recognises the need to achieve some kind of accommodation with military and polticial major powers like Russia and China.

"He has shown on two trips to Europe that while he is willing to listen to the views of EU leaders, they don't have a major influence on shaping his opinions or affecting his actions. They have 'agreed to differ' for example on the Kyoto protocol and global warming.

"He's a go-his-own way President -- as has been illustrated by his unilateral action on missile defence, his readiness to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and America's withdrawal from plans to beef up the international convention on biological weapons.

"But the process is working two ways.

"While Bush has ambitions to consolidate free markets and democracy in the Americas a grudgingly self-confident Europe is becoming less deferential to the United States."

There may be good electoral reasons Bush -- the narrowest ever White House victor -- wants to keep on good terms with his Hispanic neighbour however.

And there is the economic case. Britain remains the U.S.'s biggest single trading partner, but trade with Mexico has boomed since 1994, when the two countries and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Currently Mexican exports to the U.S. account for a quarter of the country's economy and in 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the U.S. exported $87.3 billion of goods and services across the border.

Although there could be a less political reason for the warmth Bush showed his Mexican guest. Bush and Fox became friends when they were both governors on opposite sides of the border.

Fox departed from his prepared text at Wednesday night's banquet to declare -- in English: "We not only have in common that we wear boots, Western boots. We not only have in common that we like to go to rest to our farms. We have in common that we like to see things happen."

Robert McCartney, Managing Editor of the International Herald Tribune, told CNN that Europeans should not be unduly concerned by the U.S. president's remarks.

"Bush comes from Texas. Texas borders Mexico. It is the one foreign country that Bush had a lot of interaction with before he became president."

McCartney said that with others accusing him of lacking foreign policy experience, Bush's knowledge of Mexico proved invaluable during the presidential election campaign.

"Since then he has come to Europe and listened," McCartney said.

Michael Reid, American Editor of The Economist, told CNN's Business International: "Mexico is a country the U.S. president knows and understands. He seems to get on well with Mr Fox.

"It's a different kind of special relationship with Mexico. It won't displace Europe but it certainly is a new force in American foreign policy."

Commenting on Bush's remarks, a spokeswoman for Britain's Foreign Office said on Thursday: "We have a unique relationship with the United States and they remain our closest ally."






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