A Little Atlantic Discord

President Barack Obama snubs Europeans by skipping a summit.

Doubts about President Barack Obama’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance has surfaced before. At the time, it was premature and unreasonable, considering Obama’s several visits to Europe during the first year of his presidency and the incredible amount of popularity and support he enjoyed with both European leaders and the public. Now, there is rather more reason to suspect a little Atlantic discord.

As Spain took on the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first six months of this year, Prime Minister Zapatero wished to host the regular EU-USA summit in Madrid next May. Problem is, Europe has a permanent president now and Van Rompuy wanted to have the event in Brussels. As Madrid and Brussels squabbled, Washington sighed and gave up. The White House announced that Obama wouldn’t attend after all. The president, apparently, is too busy with domestic concerns.

P.O. Neill at A Firstful of Euros isn’t having any of it. He notes that the president is skipping the summit because of “plain old irritation with the ‘who’s in charge’ question”. George W. Bush never missed a summit, Neill complains.

So was it that under the pre-Lisbon system, it was easier to figure out the procedural aspects of the summit, or that Bush cared more than Obama about the relationship with the EU as a standalone entity?

“Neither question,” he notes, “is especially comforting for the new retooled EU.”

Undoubtedly there is also still frustration in Washington with Europe’s reluctance to deliver the troops Obama called for in Afghanistan. Moreover, the president’s visit to Copenhagen in December of last year didn’t manage to foster much agreement on how to combat climate change between nations; not the Europeans’ fault, but a useless Eurotrip nonetheless.

Neill is right to bring up the American frustration with Europe’s apparent lack of leadership. While the president and permanent “foreign minister” provided for by the Lisbon Treaty were supposed to allow the union to speak with one voice, the Obama Administration seems to prefer doing business with the governments of the more important individual member states.

If Europe wants to be taken seriously and treated as an equal partner by the Americans, it needs to get its act together. There won’t be any new Atlantic order as long as the European states fail to translate their economic unity into a something of a shared foreign policy approach.