Friday, 19 November 2010

Today’s EU-US 'summit': progress or face-saving?

All this week I was inundated with press releases, previews and briefing notices leading up to the big EU-US summit taking place in Lisbon today, the first such summit since the Lisbon Treaty went into force a year ago. From the way the EU institutions were hyping it, you would think this was some kind of massive meeting of powers set to define the course of the next century. The reality? Barack Obama is taking two hours out of his busy schedule while at a NATO summit in Lisbon to meet with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on the sidelines.

Apparently this is all that US officials were willing to offer the new “EU president” even though the EU was originally thinking they could get a separate day with Obama while he was on the continent for the NATO gathering. But the EU grabbed the opportunity for even a two-hour meeting, eager to avoid another massive humiliation after Obama snubbed the union last May when he suddenly backed out of a planned EU-US summit in Madrid. The entire summit was cancelled after that last incident, and apparently EU officials didn’t want to have to go all of 2010 with the US president not meeting with his new EU counterpart.

But the idea that the EU has to grasp at straws to just get a two hour meeting with the US president is pretty humiliating, especially after he’s spent such long periods of time with his Indian and Chinese counterparts in the past two weeks. But the reality is that Obama’s ill-timed trips abroad have been damaging for him politically at home (apparently Americans don’t like their leaders to leave the country) and Obama surely couldn’t afford to spend more than one day in Europe. And really, is Europe important enough to the US to warrant that political risk?

An unnamed EU diplomat put it a funny way to Euractiv yesterday when he said "We elegantly and graciously accepted to have [the EU-US summit] in Lisbon because the US insisted." Elegantly and graciously indeed!

This snub is only the latest bump in the road for EU-US relations during the Obama presidency. Granted, relations now are 100 times better than under George W. Bush, who was almost universally reviled by the European public and politicians alike. But Europe’s irrational exuberance following the election of Barack Obama has been followed by a string of disapointments from a man they had placed huge hope in. After the Obama administration was unable to make any firm commitment at the Copenhagen climate summit last December (because they knew no such agreement could pass the US congress), the EU largely blamed the United States for the summit’s failed outcome. The US introduction of a fee for European visitors to the US has enraged Europeans. And the US demand to have access to European SWIFT bank data so offended the European Parliament that they used their new powers under the Lisbon Treaty to block the agreement. European leaders have also been critical of the US fiscal stimulus packages and money printing, which have weakened the dollar and driven up the value of the euro, damaging European exports.

And the frustration has been on the other side as well. The US has been extremely aggravated by European nations’ failure to take the Afghanistan NATO mission seriously and their steadfast refusal to increase their defence budgets. Potentially the three men meeting tomorrow might discuss these continuing frustrations, but it’s unlikely they will make much progress in two hours.

Of course there will be other more substantial EU-US meetings taking place today as well. New EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her counterpart US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have a significantly longer meeting this afternoon to discuss Afghanistan, Iran and Israel. An EU-US Energy Council will also take place today, where the two foreign relations chiefs will meet with EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger. Inexplicably though, apparently US Energy Secretary Steven Chu will not be in attendance.

Part of the reluctance for US officials to take these meetings seriously though may be the fact that the EU seems to be in a period of naval-gazing figuring out what these positions even are and – the age-old question – who speaks for Europe. The creation of a “President of the European Council” seems to have created only more confusion, as he has largely taken a back seat role and seems to have deferred to the Commission President Barrosso – the person who was effectively the “EU President” before the Lisbon Treaty. And for the new foreign representative position, her ability to actually speak for member state foreign policy is extremely limited.

US Under-Secretary of State Maria Otero summed up the US confusion during a visit to Brussels in October when she told journalists the US has observed a certain amount of “hand-wringing” from the EU officials who are putting themselves forward as the people who speak for Europe. She said because there are still so many things that are not resolved in the EU’s new diplomatic corps, it has been hard to have real talks. But she added that eventually, once the kinks in the EU reorganization are worked out, the EU-US relationship will be enhanced by the new set-up. 

NATO: European or global?

Of course the NATO summit itself is a sort of EU-US summit anyway. And there are serious issues to be worked out at this one. The delegates will be discussing proposals, backed by the UK this week, to make big cuts to the NATO budget, shutting down bases, cutting personnel by more than a quarter and reducing the number of commanders.

At the heart of these considerations is this question: is NATO still an organisation for protecting European security, or is it now an organisation for protecting American (and secondarily, European) interests globally? The mission in Afghanistan would suggest it is now the later, but many in Europe view that mission as an abject failure (and the mission is hemoraging NATO forces rapidly as European countries pull their troops out).

NATO of course was originally set up as an American protectorate of Western Europe, safeguarding the countries West of the iron curtain from Soviet invasion. When the Cold War ended, it was speculated that NATO would not become a global military alliance. But because of the difficulties of the Afghanistan mission, many European countries – led by Germany - are now rethinking this idea. But the problem is – Europe doesn’t need protecting from the Soviets any more. So what is the point of keeping NATO if it’s going to remain just a protection for Europe from a threat that no longer exists? And surely, it is not in American interests to maintain such a costly defense for a continent that is no longer geostrategicly important for it. So in the 21st century, NATO is either an American-led global Western army, or it fades away into the sunset. But even Germany, which is extremely skeptical of NATO’s global remit, is terrified of suggesting that NATO go away because it would leave Europe largely undefended.

In many ways the NATO question goes to the heart of the larger question of Europe’s relationship with America in the 21st century. Should Europe enthusiastically embrace a NATO with a global mission in exchange for maintaining the American military protectorate that has allowed European nations to under-invest in their own defence? Or should NATO be scrapped in favour of a Europe-focused defense mechanism, maybe even an EU army? These are some of the issues that will be hanging overhead today as officials take decisions over closing NATO bases and cutting its budget.

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