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Lackluster EU-U.S. Summit Highlights Lack Of Strategic Depth In Relationship

  • Ahto Lobjakas

U.S. President Barack Obama (center) speaks, surrounded by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (left) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

U.S. President Barack Obama (center) speaks, surrounded by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (left) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

BRUSSELS -- This week's EU-U.S. summit will go down as a unmemorable affair.

Neither the European Union nor the United States could claim any breakthroughs after a lackluster two-day meeting that ended in Washington on November 4.

The EU failed to secure any concessions from the United States on climate change, its current top concern. And U.S. interest in the EU visit appeared cursory at best, with most attention focused on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was in town on the same day.

A polite but visibly unenthusiastic U.S. President Barack Obama had little to offer to an EU delegation led by the Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the bloc's rotating presidency, and the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Reinfeldt and Barroso were easily upstaged by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in Washington on the same day for a separate visit. While Merkel had an hour with Obama, the entire EU delegation got 1.5 hours, following a lunch with Vice President Joe Biden.


Washington's relative disinterest in the EU delegation reflects the 27-member bloc's lack of policy coordination, its seemingly chaotic self-presentation, and its irrelevant -- from a U.S. point of view -- agenda-setting.

It came as no surprise to observers that the EU was unable to extract concessions from the United States on the main desirable on its agenda -- the fight against climate change.

After the summit, Barroso attempted to put a positive spin on the climate change talks and formally praised Obama's leadership on the issue.

"Regarding climate change, I want to say that I am more confident now than I was some days before," Barroso said.

"The Copenhagen negotiations have been slow. But I would like once again to pay tribute to President Obama's leadership. As I said earlier, President Obama changed the climate on the climate negotiations, because with the strong leadership of the United States we can indeed [reach] an agreement."

In reality, the EU had had to swallow a bitter pill on the same day, when Democratic majority leaders froze discussions on a climate bill for five weeks in response to sustained Republican opposition.

The move effectively scuppered the EU's last hopes of striking a binding global deal on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions at an international summit which will start in Copenhagen on December 7.

Barroso himself admitted that it is "obvious" that there will be no Kyoto-style deal at Copenhagen. "Without the U.S., there will be no deal," he told reports after the summit.

This, in turn, means it will be virtually impossible to persuade the developing world's biggest polluters, China and India, to cap their emissions to the extent necessary to keep the rise in global temperatures under 2 degrees between 1990-2050. EU policy-makers believe any greater increase brings with it irreversible and potentially catastrophic effects.

The EU itself is partly to blame for the lack of global consensus on the issue. Its own leadership ambition was badly damaged last week, when EU member states failed to agree at a summit how much they would pay of the 100 billion euros needed annually to cover the climate-change costs faced by the developing world.

'Polite Pleasantries'

The U.S. side restricted itself to polite pleasantries in the wake of the summit. Obama said he hopes the long-awaited ratification of the EU's Lisbon Treaty will permit it to become a more effective actor on the world stage.

Whether by design or not, Obama's remarks echoed words uttered earlier on the same day by Merkel in her address to the U.S. Congress -- the first in more than 50 years by a German leader.

Rather obviously, the president didn't have a whole lot of time to give to his EU visitors, and it doesn't seem to have been a particularly productive set of discussions.
"The United States has no better partner than Europe, and Europe has no better partner than the United States," Merkel told the U.S. lawmakers in German. (She may have changed her mind later, when, returning to Germany, she learned that the U.S. automaker General Motors was reversing a decision on selling its European subsidiary Opel, a deal the German chancellor had lobbied hard for.)

As leader of the EU's largest nation, Merkel easily eclipsed the Reinfeldt-Barroso mission, further underlining the bloc's travails as it tries to present a cohesive and coherent face to the outside world.

The French daily "La Tribune" on November 4 noted that Merkel "acted as the spokesman for the Old Continent, having eclipsed the EU-U.S summit."

Analyst Nick Witney of the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) also says the summit's main effect was to highlight the problems in the trans-Atlantic relationship.

"Rather obviously, the president didn't have a whole lot of time to give to his EU visitors, and it doesn't seem to have been a particularly productive set of discussions," Witney said.

This, Witney notes, was in some sense inevitable, given what he called the "changing of the guard in Brussels." With the Lisbon Treaty, the EU will acquire the positions of a full-time president and foreign minister -- who, it is hoped, will act as the bloc's leading representatives in the world.

Thus, Witney said, the summit was largely a "keeping-in-touch" exercise for the EU, and a "duty" the United States it felt it had to perform.

Witney, together with visiting ECFR fellow Jeremy Shapiro, had published an extensive report on EU-U.S. relations on the eve of the summit, which argues the bloc needs to learn to come together on big international issues before it can be taken seriously by the United States.

To do this, Witney said, EU member states must first establish what they want from Washington.

"What we really need is a much more substantive and worthwhile EU-U.S. strategic dialogue. But we won't get there until the EU side has something to say. And it will only get to a position where it has something to say when [EU] member states are prepared, as Europeans, to discuss the big strategic issues of the day inside the EU," Witney said.

So far, the EU has only held token debates on these issues, with member states jealously guarding their sovereign right to conduct their own separate foreign policies.

This was very much in evidence in Washington, where Reinfeldt and Barroso were in no position to issue binding pronouncements on key global challenges.

Instead, it was left to Merkel to indicate in her speech in broad lines what is acceptable, and what is not, for the EU's largest member state.

Merkel said Germany will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran that presents a threat to Israel -- a national concern at the very core of German foreign policy.

On Afghanistan -- currently the most pressing global priority for the United States -- Merkel asked for a strategy to hand over responsibility for the country's security to Afghan authorities. She failed to offer any new troops, however.

In fact, no European ally appears ready to significantly boost its military presence in Afghanistan. While in Washington, Barroso said there is "no great enthusiasm" among the public in Europe to send more forces. Also, no new troop commitments are expected when NATO foreign ministers meet next month.

Instead, the EU at its summit last week adopted a declaration promising assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan in strengthening their civilian authorities. But the refusal to commit additional troops may prove disappointing to the United States at a time when Obama is considering increasing American forces there.