LONDON, England (CNN) -- It is always a tricky time for the White House incumbent as the race to be the next occupant of the White House hots up. Steadily he becomes a man in office, not in power. His strength ebbs away daily as key players delay their decisions pending the outcome of the succession contest.
For President George W. Bush it is worse than most. A stumbling U.S. economy and alarm at soaring world oil and food prices have compounded the unpopularity of a messy war in Iraq.
But with the aid of Air Force One, lame ducks can still fly. Travel doesn't just broaden the mind, it can reassure a waning president that his office still counts. So Bush has turned his duty visit for the annual EU/U.S. summit into what looks like the George Bush Farewell Tour to Europe.
The trip starts in Slovenia. The first of the breakaway states from the former Yugoslavia hosts the EU/U.S. event because it happens to be holding the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, the first of the ex-communist countries who joined in 2004 to do so.
Though he once greeted its leader on a visit to Washington as the prime minister of nearby Slovakia, Bush will probably remember Slovenia as the country where he first met former Russian President Vladimir Putin, declaring: "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul...I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy."
But before returning home Bush will call in on Germany, Italy, the Vatican, France, Germany and the UK and while opinion polls across the continent continue to record his deep unpopularity, Bush's second term has brought him better relations with many of Europe's leaders. Watch why some Europeans haven't warmed to Bush »
First time round it wasn't just the Iraq war -- a conflict which split Europe's leaders, and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dismissal of big players like Germany and France as 'old Europe' -- which soured relations. Bush upset them too with what they saw as his unilateralism on issues like climate change, chemical weapons and the international criminal court. It was a matter of tone as well as substance.
As Robin Shepherd of the influential think tank Chatham House puts it: "The Europeans felt they were being talked down to and their views were not being taken account of. It made them very hostile" .
But Bush's final term, he says, has been easier. Others tuned to the mood music from Brussels agree. Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform, says "The second four years has been a different story. George Bush and his new Secretary of State Condi Rice decided to try and rebuild bridges with Europeans. They took the EU itself seriously. They decided to talk more politely."
They realized, as Rice herself put it early in 2005: "Our interaction with the rest of the world must be a conversation, not a monologue". And there has been co-operation, for example, in pressurizing Iran not to pursue a quest for nuclear weapons. They are pursuing the same objectives in Afghanistan. And the U.S., which used to see such a development as a danger to NATO, is now much more relaxed about the EU developing its own 'defense dimension' mounting military missions.
The Europeans too have changed, in personnel and in approach. While Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder led the European opposition to the war in Iraq, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy have sought to write a new chapter of friendship with Washington, even if it has sometimes been of the candid variety.
Even they, however, had their reservations on some of the post 9/11 issues. As Charles Grant says: "Some of the reason why public opinion has gone so hostile to the U.S. is actually particular things such as Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Bush's views on the use of torture ..you won't find any European government that really agrees with Bush on that".
Merkel and Sarkozy have not taken kindly either to Bush trying to push the EU to accept Turkey as a member. As one former EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner put it: "How would the US react if we started pushing them to accept Mexico as the 51st state?"
But with sky high oil prices, soaring food prices, a U.S.-induced international credit crunch and a deadlocked Middle East peace process will the President's trip do anything to help? Or will it merely provide a few-more glass-clinking photos for the final Presidential scrapbook.?
Shepherd says that when the EU/U.S. transatlantic community gets together it can do as much to influence such matters as any actor on the world stage. But specifics may be more difficult.
Take the Middle East. Charles Grant points out the potential tension there: "At the moment both the U.S. and the EU have the same line which is that we don't talk to Hamas, unless it recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts existing agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
However Europeans are moving towards a position where they think they may need to start talking to Hamas". That is not a view this president is ever likely to share.
Dealing with an ever more assertive Russia is also tricky, largely because the EU countries are divided. States like Poland and Lithuania, which suffered under the old Soviet Union, are keen for the EU to take a tough line. Others fear for their energy supplies and their trade if they do. The EU is Russia's biggest trading partner. The US does little business with Russia and can more easily afford confrontation.
But if there is an issue this year causing European and U.S. officials to sink their claws in each other it is chickens. Yes, chickens. Because U.S. poultry suppliers wash their chickens in chlorine the EU authorities ban them under their safety regulations. The row has rumbled on for years. Officials on both sides have been working towards a compromise, so far without being able to wrap up a deal.
If Bush can finally soothe the ruffled feathers on this one he may yet go down in Europe as a diplomat.
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