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EU Hopes For Greater Equality With U.S.

  • Ahto Lobjakas

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and other European leaders hope Obama will improve relations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and other European leaders hope Obama will improve relations.

BRUSSELS -- Barack Obama's promise of "change" has proved popular far beyond the borders of the United States.

Politicians and observers in the European Union are united in hoping that with Obama, the United States will turn away from the unilateralist policies pursued by outgoing President George W. Bush.

Welcoming Obama's promise of "change," EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said he hopes the new president will see the bloc as a partner in confronting global challenges.

"The ticket on which Barack Obama has run is a ticket for change, and change is what we need in the world today," Solana said, adding that there are many problems on the table "and I very much hope that we will be able to do it together, to find a solution to them together, between the European Union and the United States. The European Union is willing, the European Union is ready."

European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering echoed Solana's desire for partnership. "My great hope and my wish is that our relations are based on partnership and good understanding and that we have less unilateral decisions in the United States which influence the world, that we have more communication and more decisions with important partners in the world, including the European Union," he said on November 5.

Correcting Past Mistakes

In the days leading up to the election, newspaper editorials across the continent deplored Washington's preference for going it alone in the world over the past eight years.

On November 4, an editorial in the French daily "Liberation" said that Obama's promise of change carries the "hopes of the planet" for an end to the outgoing administration's "brutal, mendacious, and dogmatic foreign policy." The same day, "La Croix," another daily, listed what it called the "horrors" committed by President Bush during his tenure -- the war in Iraq, Guantanamo, foot-dragging on climate change, and the excesses of deregulation that precipitated the current financial crisis.

The tone in Germany was generally more measured, focusing on the need for the EU to establish itself as an equal partner with the United States on the world stage.

This was also the tenor of a strategy document -- not meant for publication -- adopted by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Marseilles on November 3. A draft of the paper, seen by RFE/RL, says "Americans and Europeans" must take "joint responsibility" for the world. It provides a wish list of shared policy goals ranging from achieving greater "multilateralism" to stabilizing the greater Middle East, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and finally to containing Russia's resurgence.

Writing in the French daily "Le Figaro" on November 4, former EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten says the next U.S. president must ensure that the "superpower he represents accepts the rules that apply to others."

Keen to be treated as a partner, the EU also argues the case of other "emerging powers" and international organizations. Solana made this point as well, saying the EU and the United States must acknowledge the emergence of other centers of power.

"I would like to say also that it will not be enough to have the European Union and the United States together," he said. "The problems of today need also to incorporate other main players -- I'm thinking about China, organizations like the African Union, the OSCE, and many others."

The EU foreign ministers' trans-Atlantic strategy paper highlights Russia's role. It says Russia must respect the "global rules of play," but also argues that President Dmitry Medvedev's recent proposals for a new "European security architecture" incorporating NATO and the OSCE merit closer examination.

As the "manifesto" was adopted, Medvedev harshly criticized the United States during his first state-of-the-nation address. During his speech, Medvedev said U.S. policy was to blame for the global financial crisis and the Georgian conflict, which he said was a pretext for NATO encroachment and for foisting an antimissile system on Europe.

Can Europe Hold Up Its End?

The EU's strategy of seeking greater equality with the United States appears to have two main weak points.

First, by promoting multilateralism, the EU is asking Washington to allow outside constraints to check its national interest. This would require drastic changes in U.S. security strategy that are extremely unlikely for any president to undertake in the foreseeable future.

Second, the EU itself must rise to the occasion and start punching its weight -- which in economic terms is equal to that of the United States. To do so, the bloc must speak with a single voice on all key global issues. So far, it has been unable to do so. Solana obliquely referred to the EU's struggles with disunity when he noted that he hopes "Europeans can come together to make the utmost of this historic moment."

In a statement issued on November 5, the European Foreign Relations Council, an influential think tank, pointedly observed that "European leaders must develop their own views about how to solve the financial crisis, rescue NATO's Afghan mission, deal with instability in Pakistan, counter Russia's belligerence, manage China's emergence, as well as deal with international terrorism, the spread of WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] and unrest across the Middle East."

Finally, the EU's actual record in handling global crises remains weak. EU ministers and officials have pointed to the bloc's mediating role in the Russian-Georgian conflict as evidence of its growing global weight. Last week, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner went so far as to call on the United States to "support EU leadership" in Georgia.

Yet what the EU has overseen so far amounts to a dismemberment of Georgia. It has no plans to offer Georgia membership -- while Washington backs Georgia's membership in NATO. And after the Georgian conflict, the EU's own "common foreign and security policy" can only be described as dysfunctional, undermined by its member states' sharply conflicting national interests.

Crucially for the EU's bid to stand "at eye level" with the United States, only some of these interests are supported by Washington, while others are seen as detrimental to the United States' own interests.

In the end, the absence of a shared political identity remains the EU's greatest handicap in its bid for equality with the United States. Perhaps the best illustration of this point was provided -- unwittingly -- by European Parliament President Poettering when he wrote in the British daily "The Guardian" on November 4 that "it would be wonderful to think that the intense interest with which Europeans are following today's U.S. presidential elections might be matched by Americans watching the European parliamentary elections in June 2009."