PROUDLY waving an American flag she brought home from a recent trip to the United States, Belgian Chris Stefens joined several thousand other Europeans in this capital's Grand Place Sunday night to greet a young man they call simply ``Bill.''
Ms. Stefens, whose perfect English made her perhaps one of the few onlookers who could understand President Clinton's maiden speech in Europe - broadcast for those outside Brussels's City Hall on an wide television screen - said she got the president's message loud and clear.
``He wanted to tell us that Europe and America are still partners, and that if we don't work together, there may be no future,'' said Stefens, a professional tour leader from Antwerp. ``I think Europeans will be reassured by what he says about security, but I don't really think that's why all these people came here,'' she added, motioning to the throng around her, including her sister. ``I think they're fans of America like us.''
On his first trip to Europe as president of the United States, Bill Clinton is getting a glimpse of the awe the Old Continent still reserves for America: the place that produces so much of what fascinates the young, the country that so many of the more mature still believe must lead if Europe is to escape such old phantoms as nationalism and inter-ethnic war.
``The leadership of the United States will be necessary if anything is to be done about the kind of horrible war we have so close to us in Bosnia,'' said Romano Savina, an Italian visiting Belgium with his student-daughter. ``We still need in Europe the example of a country that is democratic and open, and that gave up so many of the old, deeply rooted ideas Europe still has.''
While the crowd huddled and stamped feet outside to keep warm, Mr. Clinton told a group of 250 mostly young Europeans inside that ``I have come here today to declare and to demonstrate that Europe remains central to the interests of the United States.''
Clinton began his speech by declaring: ``My administration supports ... Europe's development of stronger institutions of common purpose and common action,'' referring to the European Union, which the European Community renamed itself after fully ratifying the Maastricht Treaty last October. He said that Europe's old security based on opposing defense blocs must be replaced by a ``new security'' based on Europe's integration.
This new, more complex security, he said, must ``bind a broader Europe together with a strong fabric woven of military cooperation, prosperous market economies, and vital democracies.'' America, the president added, will ``help lead'' in the weaving of that fabric.
Warning that ``the peoples who broke communism's chains'' are now in ``a race between rejuvenation and despair,'' Clinton said the West must not squander this ``fleeting opportunity'' to help Eastern Europe and Russia. As a first step, the president said he was proposing the ``Partnership for Peace,'' a ``process of evolution for NATO's formal enlargement'' to the East, which was to be adopted at the conclusion of a NATO summit here today.
FOR those in Brussels central square who understood the president's words, the emphasis on the East was welcome. ``There is a door open for helping develop democracy and stability in Eastern Europe, and it's important we take that opportunity,'' said an Irish woman, Bronagh Hopkins. ``I was especially struck by what Clinton said about broadening Europe for a stability that is of equal importance to the States.''
Several people in the crowd said that, while they thought the US and Europe would continue to work together on security issues, they believe the transatlantic relationship faces its toughest challenges in the commercial realm.
``From the security point of view, things are OK,'' said Brussels resident Daniel Renard, who brought his son Sebastien for the ``historic opportunity'' to see a US president. ``But it's the commercial relations that will continue to be difficult. [Clinton] is too much for America to the detriment of Europe.''
Despite the serious topics Clinton developed in his speech, most people in the crowd said they were simply drawn by a young president who has restored a certain vision of America. ``My impression of him personally is good,'' Mr. Renard said. ``He seems nice, intelligent, and it's reassuring to see a young man in there.''
Europeans like him because they say he is what America should be, and what they are often convinced Europe is not: young, spontaneous, full of ideas, and ready to try new things. ``What's interesting about Bill Clinton is that he doesn't claim to be pure as the driven snow, which to me means he's willing to take risks, maybe even with the kind of new thinking we'll need to solve some of our problems,'' said Jenny Hopkins, an administrator at the European Commission. ``He doesn't have the fake image some presidents have had.''
From among a trio of Belgian high school boys working on a chorus of ``Bill, Bill,'' Fabien Destree said, ``He's someone who illustrates what America is for us: He's a young president in a country that has the best actors, the best basketball stars, the best musicians.''
But they also like this president because, aware as they often are of his desire to focus on domestic issues, they as Europeans relate better to a president who believes government has a role in improving people's lives.
``I very much like his emphasis on the social dimension, which is so different for a recent US president,'' said Marie-Claire Neill-Cowper, another European Union employee. ``It's new and refreshing for Europeans to hear.''