02/03/2010 03:05 PM

The World from Berlin

Obama's No-Show Disappoints Europe

US President Barack Obama's decision not to attend an EU-US summit in Madrid in May has left many on this side of the Atlantic worrying that the European Union has lost clout in Washington.

When Washington announced this week that US President Barack Obama had no intention of attending an EU-US summit in Madrid this May, it was the first the Spanish government had heard of it. While White House officials insist that the refusal of the invitation is merely because Obama is concentrating on the domestic agenda and cutting down on foreign travel in 2010, it is hard for Europeans -- and Spain, in particular -- not to view the decision as a snub and to question whether the European Union has any clout left in Washington.

The president's decision was announced on Monday, just days before Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was to arrive in Washington on a two-day visit. Zapatero is not scheduled to meet with Obama, though he may speak to him at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where the Spanish leader is due to give a Bible reading.

Madrid, for its part, had assumed that Obama was coming to the summit in May, which was to be the highlight of its six-month rotating presidency of the EU. Now the EU is considering scrapping the meeting altogether. A spokesman for the European Commission said that efforts were being made to agree to a date for the summit, but EU diplomats told Reuters privately that the May meeting was not likely to take place if Obama does not attend. "If there is no Obama, there is no summit," the official said. "We will organize a new meeting at the highest level when the political situation and the agenda make it possible."

The indications now are that the summit will be postponed and that it will most likely be rescheduled so as to concide with a NATO meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, in November.

Brussels Plays Down Obama Decision

In Brussels, there has been an attempt to play down Obama's decision not to attend the Madrid summit. In an interview with the Financial Times, Catherine Ashton, the EU's new foreign policy chief, said that the relationship with the US was in good shape. She said that she had discussed the matter of Obama's decision not to attend the summit with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her trip to Washington last month. "The issue for him was partly that he's coming to Lisbon in November for a NATO summit," Ashton said, "and secondly, that we'd had a summit with him not so long ago."

Meanwhile, US officials have pointed out that Obama had visited Europe six times last year and had met with Zapatero twice in 2009. Yet the summit was supposed to be the first since the EU ratified the Lisbon Treaty, on Dec. 1, 2009, which created the posts of president and foreign policy chief and aimed at making the 27-member bloc a stronger global player. However, the choice of two little known figures -- former Belgian Prime Minister Harman Van Rompuy, as president, and the Briton Catherine Asthon, as foreign policy chief -- may have proved a mistake in raising the EU's profile.

The EU has also failed to impress by taking five months since the reappointment of Jose Manuel Barroso as European Commission president to appoint a new executive. And the continuation of the six-month rotating presidency may well have simply added to the confusion about the bloc's seemingly Byzantine power structures, failing yet again to answer Henry Kissinger's famous question, "If I want to call Europe, who do I call?"

Frustration with Europe's Confusing Structures

While it is certainly plausible that Obama's prime motivation is to focus his attention on his difficult domestic agenda, there are some indications of growing frustration in Washington with the EU's confusing structures.

State department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Tuesday that the EU leadership was part of the problem, indicating that there was a lack of clarity on both sides as to where and how the annual summits would be held. "We are working through this, just as the European are working through this," he said.

"The very fact that the summit is taking place in Spain, after the establishment of a more permanent presidency and a high representative, is indicative of the fact that the EU is still in institutional limbo," Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow for European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Associated Press.

Spain's center-right newspaper El Mundo, quoting US sources, reported on Tuesday that Obama had been unhappy with the last US-EU summit, held in Washington in November. "There were so many voices and so little results that the president cut short the meeting and sent Vice President Joe Biden to the official meal." Meanwhile, the center-left daily El Pais ran the headline "Obama Turns His Back on Europe."

While Obama's election was widely welcomed across the Atlantic in 2008 after the often fraught dealings with his predecessor, George W. Bush, relations have not been particularly smooth with the new White House. After the EU was effectively sidelined during the Copenhagen climate talks by the US and China, and following the scrapping of the missile defense project in Eastern Europe, many Europeans are wondering if the bloc is a priority for the Obama administration. "He does not always seem as interested in Europe as Europe is in the United States," an EU diplomat told Reuters.

Hugo Brady, senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, writes in Wednesday's Independent newspaper that "Europe's decline seems to be accelerating." "The reality is that the Lisbon Treaty is just a piece of paper. It cannot by itself cure the Europeans of their weakness for circuitous arguments and tendency to offer up process as product," he argues. "Depressingly the Europeans probably need to accept that they have missed the opportunity that Obama's election represented."

On Wednesday, German papers mull what exactly Obama's lack of enthusiasm for a trans-Atlantic trip in May signals for EU-US relations.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"There is a certain irony in the Americans using the Lisbon Reform Treaty, of all things, as an excuse for declining to come. During the 10 years that the Europeans spent arguing over reform, one argument was repeatedly used: If we want to be heard in the world, then we have to speak with one voice. The reform may have come into effect now, but instead of speaking with one voice, the EU speaks with at least four -- that of a permanent European Council president, the six-month rotating EU presidency, a foreign minister and a president of the European Commission, all jockeying for competencies and power. Added to that are the leaders of the member states. It's understandable that the Americans no longer have any desire to get involved in bizarre intra-European affairs."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Spainish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero wanted to stage the Obama visit as the highlight of the Spain's EU presidency. It would have been wonderful to show his government's sympathy for Obama's America and to bask in its glow."

"The economic situation (in Spain) is desperate. The IMF is predicting stagnation for this year, if not a shrinking of the Spanish economy, and the financial industry believes the country is approaching the situation of troubled economies, such as Portugal, Ireland and Greece. Unemployment is close to 20 percent. Since Spain relied too heavily on the real estate market, there are no other potential areas for growth."

"Zapatero's call for a new European economic policy was not coordinated with his EU partners and has not been greeted with enthusiasm. Spain's credibility will be decided by whether Madrid gets down to work sorting out its problems."

"As for Europe, Obama's refusal of the invitation is a pity, but it won't affect the core of US-Europe relations. This doesn't need the big show of a summit meeting but, rather, concrete agreements about how to reform international financial transactions."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero would have been delighted to act as host to President Obama. Indeed, in the difficult times that Spain and its government are experiencing, a bit of glamour would have been welcome. But Obama won't be there to present Zapatero with some nice photo-ops because he won't be attending the EU-US summit. The Europeans now have their dream president, and he obviously has better things to do than jet across the Atlantic to spend a few hours chatting with them. That was something he was forced to do several times last year, especially because of Chicago's Olympics bid."

"But, seriously, does Obama have nothing to discuss with the EU that is important to him and that might be worth the flight over? Or does he not even consider the EU as being all that relevant? One shouldn't make a big song and dance out of his refusal to come to the summit. But perhaps it will now dawn on the Europeans that they are not the center of this president's attention."

-- Siobhán Dowling


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