Tongue-tied Clinton gets warm welcome

BRUSSELS Fri Mar 6, 2009 1:25pm EST

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a news conference after a meeting with EU officials at the European Council headquarters in Brussels March 6, 2009. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a news conference after a meeting with EU officials at the European Council headquarters in Brussels March 6, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows on her first visit to Europe as secretary of state when she mispronounced her EU counterparts' names and claimed U.S. democracy was older than Europe's.

Clinton has set herself a grueling pace on visits to Egypt, Israel and Brussels soon after touring the Far East, attending dozens of meetings and giving speech after speech, with little time worked into her schedule for sleep.

Tiredness appeared to show Friday when she answered questions in front of 500 young Europeans at the European Parliament, where she was the highest-ranking U.S. visitor since the late President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

A veteran politician, Clinton compared the complex European political environment to that of the two-party U.S. system, before adding:

"I have never understood multiparty democracy.

"It is hard enough with two parties to come to any resolution, and I say this very respectfully, because I feel the same way about our own democracy, which has been around a lot longer than European democracy."

The remark provoked much headshaking in the parliament of a bloc that likes to trace back its democratic tradition thousands of years to the days of classical Greece.

One working lunch later with EU leaders, Clinton raised more eyebrows when she referred to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who stood beside her, as "High Representative Solano."

She also dubbed European Commission External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner as "Benito."

Still, Clinton has been well received in Brussels, where the Obama administration has been viewed as a breath of fresh air after the unpopular leadership of George W. Bush. His secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, often drew protests on her travels.

Fellow foreign ministers stood and applauded Clinton's presentation at a meeting with NATO counterparts Thursday and extra space had to be set aside for a spillover audience of 800 at the European Parliament.

Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering was effusive in his praise, saying that with the new administration, the United States and Europe once again "share the same values."

"What you said mostly could have been said by a European," he told Clinton after she fielded questions ranging from climate change to energy security and aid to Africa and one on gay rights from a participant wearing an "I love Hillary" t-shirt.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming, Sarah Luehrs and Darren

Ennis; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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