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EU-U.S.: The Not-So-Special Relationship

  • Ahto Lobjakas

When he wants to talk to "Europe," who does President Barack Obama (center) call?

When he wants to talk to "Europe," who does President Barack Obama (center) call?

BRUSSELS -- Climate change, energy cooperation, and a raft of topical international issues will dominate the first formal U.S.-EU summit since President Barack Obama took office in January this year.

But officials in Brussels are downplaying the chances of any breakthroughs coming out of the meeting in Washington on November 3-4. Coupled with the EU pessimism, is the prevailing sense that, contrary to early expectations, the EU-U.S. relationship has failed to take off since President George W. Bush stepped down.

Brussels may be disappointed that Obama's agenda of change has failed to transform EU-U.S. relations, but EU mandarins know the bloc only has itself to blame.

For many, it was clear from the start that core U.S. interests were not going to change with Obama's ascension. Instead, it was up to the European Union to demonstrate how it could be relevant to the plans of the new U.S. leader. And this the bloc has failed to do.

A report released by the influential London-based European Council of Foreign Relations on the eve of the summit bluntly drives home this point.

"An unsentimental President Obama has already lost patience with a Europe lacking coherence and purpose," the report's authors conclude. The EU, chronically unable to present a single, ambitious front on any of the key global challenges, is making an ineffective partner for Obama, prompting him to look elsewhere.

Part of the EU's problem is that most of its member states are members of NATO, which the United States -- the alliance's largest member -- prefers to the EU as the forum for trans-Atlantic security debate.

The EU's weakness vis-a-vis Washington is further compounded by the tendency of a number of its member states, above all Britain, to have a "special relationship" with the United States that encourages them to look for direct, unmediated access.

The bloc's rotating presidencies, rotating every six months, do not contribute to continuity, either. In April, when Obama attending his first EU-U.S. summit, the Czechs -- in a state of political disarray -- played host as EU president. This time, the EU delegation will be led by the Swedish prime minister, Frederik Reinfeldt, accompanied by Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Still No Single 'Phone Number'

The situation may improve somewhat when the EU's Lisbon Treaty takes effect. (On November 3, the Czech Constitutional Court ruled the treaty is in line with the country's constitution, lifting the last legal hurdle to Lisbon's ratification.)

The bloc will then acquire a full-time president and a beefed-up foreign minister -- but both will have to jostle for attention with Barroso and an emasculated, but nonetheless still influential, rotating presidency. Instead of a single phone number, once memorably requested by Henry Kissinger, the bloc will then have no fewer than four separate extensions.

The EU's many voices
The summit will address all of the main international issues, among them Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, and Russia. But the EU collectively finds itself in the role of a bit player, unable to influence either the shaping of U.S. policy or events on the ground.

The EU's own latest summit last week promised a new strategy to increase the capabilities of the civilian authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- without providing any details, however, on how it is going to do that. Although European allies provide nearly a third of the international forces in Afghanistan, nearly all decisions of consequence are taken in Washington.

The bloc enjoys a higher profile in the international efforts to neutralize Iran's nuclear program. But it still takes a back seat to the United States when it comes to concrete action on Tehran.

Russian Influence

The EU is on firmer ground when it comes to Russia. But it has proven itself singularly unable to affect Russian foreign-policy decisions or elicit any meaningful concessions. Moscow pursues a divide-and-rule policy vis-a-vis the bigger EU capitals, which hamstrings the bloc's foreign-policy coordination.

The U.S. attempt to "reset" its relations with Russia has met with broad approval within the EU, but there are no observable synergies. Most of the bloc's western continental member states view the U.S. move as going in the direction of a long-overdue normalization of relations. But they themselves have little ambition themselves to move beyond the current status quo in EU-Russian ties.

Which, in turn, leaves Russia's Eastern European neighbors in limbo. With Obama's attention largely elsewhere, Georgia, Ukraine, and others feel an increase in Russian pressure -- something the EU has been unable to counteract.

Economy, Climate Change

Until recently, the EU appeared capable of standing toe-to-toe with the United States on economic issues. But although the size of the respective economies are roughly equal, the breakdown of trade liberalization talks and China's rise has brought with it a decline in Europe's relative global influence. The U.S.-Chinese "G2" tandem now threatens to eclipse all other trade relationships.

The U.S.-EU economic recovery agenda is set within the broader Group of 20 framework and remains dogged by persistent disagreement over the extent and nature of future financial-sector regulation. Within the EU itself, the bloc's largest economy, Germany, finds itself at loggerheads with Britain, which feels a natural affinity for the economic model of the United States.

The EU's headline concern at the summit will be climate change. But although Obama has proven more amenable than his predecessor to recognizing the problem, he has so far done little to match the EU's concern, much less submit to European leadership on the issue.

Moreover, the bloc's own failure at its summit last week to agree what it wants to contribute to offsetting the costs incurred by the developing world in fighting global warming leaves it in no position to put pressure on the United States.

Consequently, officials in Brussels fear that the United States will not match the bloc's promise of cutting emissions by 20 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, or join a globally regulated emissions-trading scheme for polluters sought by the EU.

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