Given that this is a blog about EU-US issues, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sad, sad tears that are being shed today over Barack Obama’s decision to ditch the planned EU-US summit in Madrid in May.
Spain appears to be livid about it, while papers across Europe seem to be responding not in anger but rather in a rather depressed and humiliated shrug. The White House announced yesterday that Obama would not be attending the planned joint summit, which apparently came as quite a shock to its organisers. Apparently EU officials found out about the decision, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, through the news media.
Spain, which currently holds the rotating EU ministerial presidency (not to be confused with the newly-created council presidency), is now saying it will postpone the summit until the president can attend. Holding it without him would be humiliating for Europe and would lack symbolic significance.
Papers on both sides of the Atlantic are interpreting the decision as a snub, though the White House is saying it is all a “misunderstanding” and that they never committed to Obama attending the summit. But The Guardian is reporting that the decision is partly a result of confusion and frustration over leadership in the new post-Lisbon Treaty EU. Would Obama be meeting with the summit’s host, Spanish prime minister Zapatero, or with the new ceremonial “EU President” Herman van Rumpuy?
Europe’s first foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton tried to downplay the snub today, saying Obama has a lot on his domestic agenda and since he’s already scheduled to visit an Iberian country during the Nato summit in Lisbon in November it didn’t make sense for him to come so frequently. One senior European official told The New York Times that “after the loss of a Senate seat to the Republicans in Massachusetts, Obama would be doing less travelling to supposedly glamorous spots like Europe that would only feed Republican criticism.” Being friendly with Europe, in other words, does not play well in American domestic politics.
It is certainly true that Obama’s decision not to come was most likely prompted by the urgency of the domestic situation at home – compared with the non-urgency of American relations with Europe. There is no pressing issue going on between them that needs settling. Obama is much more likely to focus on American relations with China, which have taken a nasty turn recently in confrontations over climate change, arms sales to Taiwan and sanctions against Iran.
Still, this is without a doubt a blow to European prestige, which EU officials desperately hoped to build up with the creation of the new leadership posts. With the selection of such low-profile people for the new positions of president and foreign minister, it looks like they may be creating confusion rather than commanding attention.
One imagines that had Tony Blair been selected as the Council President, Obama might have been more willing to hop on a plane to Madrid to have a first meeting with him.