* Obama, EU counterparts tackle Russia, trade, energy at
* Obama underlines strength of transatlantic relations
* Tells EU to develop own energy sources to cut reliance on
* Offers US gas help but presses for deal in trade talks
(Recasts after news conference, adds quotes)
By Robin Emmott and Jan Strupczewski
BRUSSELS, March 26 U.S. President Barack Obama
told the European Union on Wednesday it cannot rely on the
United States alone to reduce its dependency on Russian energy,
as relations with Moscow chill over its seizure of Crimea from
Speaking on a visit to Brussels to discuss trade relations
and the Ukraine crisis, Obama said concluding a new
transatlantic trade pact, now under negotiation, would make it
easier for Washington to licence more gas exports.
The EU relies on Russia for about a third of its oil and
gas, and tensions with Moscow have heightened concerns among its
28 members about the security of their energy supplies. Some 40
percent of that gas is shipped through Ukraine.
They have already stepped up efforts to reduce reliance on
Russia but German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she supported
asking Obama to relax restrictions on exports of U.S. gas.
"Once we have a trade agreement in place, export licences
for projects for liquefied natural gas destined to Europe would
be much easier, something that is obviously relevant in today's
geopolitical environment," Obama told a news conference after
meeting EU leaders, adding that it could not happen overnight.
During a 65-minute lunch, European Council President Herman
Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso
pressed Obama to step up U.S. gas exports, but he responded
bluntly in telling the Europeans they needed to take politically
difficult steps to develop their own resources.
EU ambassador to Washington Jose Vale de Almeida quoted
Obama as telling them: "You cannot just rely on other people's
energy, even if it has some costs, some downside," in a clear
reference to opposition in parts of the EU on environmental
grounds to nuclear power and the extraction of shale gas.
The issue will also be discussed next week at a special
meeting of EU and U.S. energy ministers, officials said.
The United States is well on its way to becoming
self-sufficient in energy and reducing its industrial production
costs because it has allowed large scale use of controversial
fracking techniques to tap shale gas.
France and Bulgaria ban fracking and other EU countries such
as Britain and Poland face protests.
In the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great
Depression, EU governments and the Obama administration see a
deep and broad free-trade deal as the best way to create jobs,
removing burdens and customs duties on businesses.
But eight months into the talks, public hostility has grown
towards the idea of unfettered transatlantic commerce, while
negotiators remain far apart on many issues.
Reports of the scale of U.S. National Security Agency spying
in Europe have combined with concerns about the potential damage
to food safety and the environment under a free-trade pact.
Obama said he had campaigned all his career for consumer
rights and environmental protection and would not be party to an
agreement that lowered standards. Protesters were reacting to
distorted rumours around the trade talks, he said.
In both the United States and Europe, unions worry about job
losses or reductions in working standards, and say a trade pact
will serve the interests only of multinational companies.
Obama began his visit to Belgium by visiting the Flanders
Field American war cemetery, visiting the graves of some of the
368 U.S. service members, most killed during World War One.
His visit and the symbolism of transatlantic unity had added
resonance at a time when tensions in Europe are running high
because of Russia's military occupation and annexation of
Ukraine's Crimea region.
"This hallowed ground reminds us that we must never, ever
take our progress for granted. We must commit perennially to
peace, which binds us across oceans," Obama said.
If there were any doubts about the EU-U.S relationship after
last year's revelations of the scale of Washington's spying on
its allies, Obama planned to assuage them later in the day, in a
speech to some 2,000 guests, before leaving for Rome.
National Security Agency eavesdropping on Europeans' emails
and mobile phones was mentioned only briefly at the joint news
conference, with Van Rompuy welcoming Obama's initiatives to
curb excesses by U.S. intelligence services and to reach a
balanced data protection agreement with the EU by this summer.
During Obama's visit to The Hague this week, the United
States and Germany, France, Britain and Italy, along with Japan
and Canada, warned Russia that it faced damaging economic
sanctions if it took further action to destabilise Ukraine.
Obama reiterated the threat in Brussels and said governments
in Washington and Europe were discussions possible measures
against Russia's energy sector, a lifeline of its economy.
TOUGH TRADE TALKS
The European Union and the United States already trade
almost $3 billion in goods and services each day and, by
intensifying economic ties, the pact could create a market of
800 million people where business could be done freely.
Politicians on both sides say a trade pact encompassing
almost half the world's economy could generate $100 billion in
additional economic output a year on both sides of the Atlantic
and set the standards for global business before China does.
About 50 campaigners against a deal protested outside the
European Parliament on Wednesday, wearing giant Obama masks and
waving banners reading 'No GMO (genetically modified organisms)
in our food'.
"What is at stake is the safety of our food and the
environment," said EU lawmaker Philippe Lamberts, a member of
the Belgian Green party.
"Worse, this trade deal is an instrument to allow big
companies to do as they wish and trample legislation or write it
themselves with lobbyists."
Inside the negotiating rooms, other difficult issues include
removing customs duties that cost companies billions of dollars
each year, particularly automakers such as Ford and
Washington and Brussels have been at odds over an initial
exchange of offers to open up markets and cut tariffs, with each
saying the other has not been ambitious enough.
($1 = 0.7255 Euros)
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft, Jeff Mason and Steve
Holland; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Paul Taylor)