Obama blows off Europe

In skipping the annual U.S.–European Union summit, President Obama insulted Europe and embarrassed Spanish President José Luis Zapatero. 

President Obama has insulted Europe in the most brazen way, said Hubert Wetzel in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. “The diplomatic world knows no greater rudeness than to skip a planned summit—and to announce that cancellation through the media.” But that’s what Obama did last week when he said he wouldn’t be attending the annual U.S.–European Union summit, scheduled for May in Madrid. It was a major embarrassment to Spanish President José Luis Zapatero, who currently holds the rotating, six-month EU presidency. The U.S. didn’t even do Spain the courtesy of notifying it through its ambassador. It’s now quite obvious that Obama—despite all the talk about his popularity in Europe—has no particular affinity for the continent. “His world is Africa, where his father was born, and Indonesia, where he spent his childhood.”

Pity the poor European diplomats, said Bart Beirlant in Belgium’s De Standaard. They went to “all that trouble for nothing.” Hours of meetings were held to figure out protocol at the European level. A compromise was finally found: Spain’s Zapatero “would, as rotating EU president, shake Obama’s hand,” and during the dinner the new, permanent president of the European Council, Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, “would get to sit directly opposite him.” And of course the EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso would be there, as well as Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief. Come to think of it, that’s probably why Obama bailed: “Europe is still not speaking with a single voice.”

That’s exactly the problem, said Arnaud Leparmentier and Corine Lesnes in France’s Le Monde. Who was Obama supposed to talk to, and what was he supposed to talk about? The EU’s Lisbon Treaty, ratified last year, was intended to streamline international relations by giving us the new posts of permanent president and foreign affairs minister. But “nobody understands a thing about the distribution of power” between those posts or about the roles of the rotating presidency and the EU Commission. With the confusion over who’s in charge, there is no clear summit agenda. And let’s not forget that Obama already attended two U.S.-EU summits last year, “and both times he found that nothing emerged from it.” Why should he cross the ocean again? “The American president will visit the Europeans when they manage to organize themselves to discuss serious matters.”

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The lack of cohesion “apparently gets on Obama’s nerves,” said Susanna Bastaroli in Austria’s Die Presse. The European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank, recently released a report saying that Washington sees the EU as “infantile” and “far too immersed in trying to get attention,” while it ducks responsibilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In short, Obama sees us as “a fractious and self-centered rabble.” Europeans will have to form a consensus on major issues such as China, Russia, and the Middle East. “It may be assumed that a strong, self-confident Europe would be greeted with great interest in the U.S.” But let’s face it: At this point we are neither strong nor self-confident.

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