WASHINGTON – Belgium's prime minister told President Bush on Tuesday that while the United States has improved its relationship with Europe in the last year, "there is certainly a lot of work still to do."
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said he told Bush that the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is driving down public opinion of the United States in Europe. He said Europeans wants court trials for suspects being held indefinitely at the camp on Cuba's eastern tip.
"The president responded that that was the goal at the end of the whole process," Verhofstadt told reporters as he left the White House after a meeting with Bush. "I think it's a very important thing to say that to the American president, that that is certainly an important thing to do."
Guantanamo has become a symbol in Europe for what many people see as Bush administration excesses in hunting down and interrogating potential terrorists. The United States says the detainees are suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda operatives or soldiers, but lawyers and rights groups say many were victims of circumstance who are not violent.
Belgium, like several other European nations, was a strong opponent to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and has spoken out against reports of secret prisons maintained in Europe by the CIA.
But Verhofstadt said informal meetings that foreign ministers of the U.S. and European countries have had in New York City and the Belgian capital of Brussels have improved relations. He said further cooperation to solve international problems will do even more.
"There is certainly a lot of work still to do," he said. "And I think that a common point of view and a common policy of the U.S. and of Europe on issues like the Middle East, like Iran, is certainly absolutely necessary and can improve this trans-Atlantic relationship."
Bush has made improving relations with Europe a focus of his second term after testy disputes over Iraq during his first four years in office. His first international trip of his second term was to Europe, starting with a stop in Belgium.
Bush pledged to cooperate with Belgium to improve trade and help its former African colony of Congo transition to a peaceful democracy after two back-to-back wars in the last 10 years.
"I told the prime minister that my government would work very closely with the Belgium government to help the people of the Congo realize their full potential," Bush told reporters after their closed-door talk in the Oval Office.
As reporters were ushered in at the end of the meeting, the two men were laughing heartily and discussing the Tour de France and seven-time champ Lance Armstrong, a Texan whom Verhofstadt met at the 2004 race.
Bush said he and Verhofstadt plan to go mountain biking together one day. Verhofstadt said they will be "in the search of who can be the successor of Lance Armstrong."