By Axel Krause, Contributing Editor
February 12, 2010
On a cold Friday afternoon at the prestigious Ecole Militaire in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told a large gathering of senior French officers and students, that the Obama administration was fully commited to both strong, cooperative relations with France and further European integration, urging “we need European leadership in the 21st century.”
As the applause died down, few if any in the hall imagined that an uproar would erupt the following Monday, February 8, which continues simmering in Paris, Brussels and other capitals, – all over what was widely perceived in Europe as an offensive, deliberate snub by President Barack Obama.
The story broke on the web site of the Wall Street Journal, revealing that the White House had decided to drop plans to attend a regular E.U.-U.S. Summit meeting in Madrid on May 24-25, citing the president’s busy schedule.
Consternation and some anger surfaced immediately in European capitals with diplomats telling reporters , with a hint of sarcasm, that it reflected Obama’s lack of interest and commitment to the European Union. Administration officials then tried explaining the meeting was never on the president’s agenda, so could not be considered a cancellation, arguing that Clinton’s speech in Paris reflected the administration’s strong commitment to the European Union. To no avail.
As the story unfolded last week, European officials countered by citing a preparatory meeting held in Madrid recently, with no hint Obama wouldn’t attend, amid some allegations, notably in the European media, that Obama’s the decision to forego the summit was something between a snub and an insult, even though E.U. leaders did not comment openly, with the exception of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy. “I don’t think it demonstrates a lack of interest by President Obama for Europe. Where is the drama? Is that our only problem in the world today?”
Standing alongside the French leader at a recent meeting in Paris, aimed at bolstering their relations, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel evasively added that she would raise the White House decision with fellow E.U. leaders. Period.
There was, however, no hiding that this incident did in fact reflect a sense of American and even widespread, European disappointment, frustration, bordering on indifference and boredom, with regard to the E.U.’s slow, plodding, confusing, even ineffective efforts to play a leading role in world affairs.
The disappointment now extends to the particularly confusing, overlapping E.U. leadership which includes the new President of the E.U. Council, Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, Britain’s Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission; Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission and the current, rotating president of the E.U. Council of Ministers, Spain’s Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who recently visited Washington, aimid tensions between these leaders over who then is now responsible for speaking for Brussels on foreign policy and strategic issues.
The confusing, complex state of leadership in Brussels prompted France’s respected daily Le Monde to comment that “the American president is (still) struggling to identify the right interlocuteur for discussing strategic dossiers with Europe,” closley resembling the famous quip by Henry Kissinger over thirty years ago about not having a phone number for Europe. “Too many cooks…trying to stick their hands into the new foreign-policy pot,”headlined the Economist recently. But the problem isn’t really new.
The gradual, unspoken decline in active, enthusiastic American support for a single, European voice and integration began with the end of the Cold War and the eastward expansion of the E.U., including Central Europe, and most recently, the opening of negotiations for Turkey’s full membership in the 27-nation bloc, which Washington supports and Sarkozy opposes. The Obama administration has also been annoyed and frustrated with steadfast opposition by both Merkel and Sarkozy to provide significant, increased military support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and with the fact that little of interest to Obama has come out of previous trans-Atlantic summits. Some European observers now understand and accept the Obama perception.
In London, Charles Grant, the director of the Center for European Reform, told the New York Times that the Obama snub was “a useful wake-up call for the E.U….no one will court them, or have summits because Europe is a nice idea. They need to deliver.” Added Nicole Bacharan, professor at the Paris Institute for Political Studies, conceding the European sense of wounded pride: “For Obama, there is no urgency about the relationship with Europe…he prioritzes, but lacks empathy toward Europe. Europe is not his priority.”
This is not to say that trans-Atlantic relations are in crisis. Trade and investment flows continue growing. Close cooperation between the U.S., and Brussels agencies continues to expand in such areas as security, anti-terrorist initiatives and undercover investigations; France opposes enhanced military support in Afghanistan, but Washington and Paris cooperate in other areas involving NATO and U.N. peacekeeping in developing countries, and in pushing for sanctions against Iran. And although throughout Europe Obama’s lack of success on the domestic front, mainly related to health-care reform and job creation, has disappointed many, he remains highly popular and admired.
By the same token, Obama and his advisers are closely tracking European leaders currently struggling to find solutions to the deficit/debt crisis battering Greece, but also Portugal, Spain and the euro, amid proposals being made this week by Van Rompuy” for what he terms reinforced E.U.“economic governance.” And that the European Parliament only voted on Tuesday for a new European Commission following a delay of some three months.
This does not mean short term that there is realistic hope for a stronger, dynamic role for the E.U. on the world stage, nor that Obama’s perfectly-justified decision to skip the May summit means he won’t participate in a trans-Atlantic summit later this year. Indeed, it seems he will – at a meeting to coincide with a NATO summit being scheduled for Lisbon in November.