|Charm and seduction amid the chandeliers|
Martin Kettle in Brussels
Tuesday February 22, 2005
The aristocrats of Brussels used to come to the Concert Noble to charm, to seduce and, eventually, to find themselves a mate. So this elegant 19th century Belgian drawing room was a tailor-made venue for George Bush to start the task of wooing European opinion once again.
Rarely can so many famous Belgians have been gathered together in one place as they were at lunchtime yesterday when Mr Bush strode to the podium in the company of the Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt to deliver the speech that is the political centrepiece of his visit to Europe this week.
The great and good had come from every corner of the European Union. There was the foreign minister of Luxembourg, a Danish general, and even the former head of the Tory group of MEPs.
If you are told to get to the hall two hours before the speech, then you don't count for very much. The later you are allowed to arrive, the more important you are. So it was only when Condoleezza Rice, followed by Laura Bush, slipped into the room that the invited audience stopped gossiping and snapped to attention.
And then, quite suddenly, there he was. Under five of the biggest chandeliers in Brussels the president and his Belgian host entered to a standing and prolonged ovation. So prolonged, in fact, that Mr Bush had to gesture to his own people to encourage the audience to sit down.
Mr Verhofstadt seized his brief moment in the spotlight to make the kind of remarks that British Eurosceptics expect from a Belgian prime minister. He said that Europe had failed to prevent the civil war in Yugoslavia because it had been hesitant and divided. The answer was a united Europe, as strong as the United States, he said.
But it was Mr Bush the audience had come to hear and he did not disappoint. When he described Brussels as the capital of "a beautiful nation", it was immediately clear that he was aiming to please.
Then he told a graceful story about Benjamin Franklin coming to Europe and being greeted everywhere as a friend of humankind. "I have been hoping for a similar reception," he observed, and everyone laughed, "but Secretary Rice told me I should be a realist." Laughter again.
George Bush will never be a great orator. The gestures and grimaces are too often too hard to square with the immensity of his power.
But he is a far better speaker than his most implacable detractors allow. And this speech was, quite simply, one by a politician at the top of his game. It was like listening to Caesar reviewing the condition of the Roman empire - daunting but irresistible.
At times it seemed as if Mr Bush was going to say something about every single country in the world. One moment he was reprimanding the Dutch for their racial violence, the next he was slipping in a compliment to Morocco for its embrace of reform.
But it was the Middle East that was at the heart of this speech. And it seemed to be the issue that most people in the Concert Noble wanted to hear most about too. When he called for a Palestinian state "with contiguous territory on the West Bank" and declared that a state of "scattered territories" would not work the applause was loud and heartfelt.
Afterwards the verdict was positive in the hall. Charmed? Certainly. Seduced? They liked the thought. But a partner for life? Let's see how it feels in the morning.