Does Washington care about the EU?
Try as it might, the European Union’s efforts to act like a bigger player in world affairs keep running into obstacles.
The latest setback is a report that President Barack Obama won’t be able to make it to the annual EU-U.S. summit this year, pencilled in for Madrid in May. A hectic domestic agenda and the fact the U.S. president made 10 foreign trips last year — more than any other president in his first year in office — means staying at home is the priority and the Europe Union will have to wait.
Spanish officials — Spain holds the rotating six-month presidency of the EU and is hosting the summit — say the White House has not officially withdrawn his attendance. As far as they are concerned Obama is still coming, even if the dates for the meeting have not yet been finalised.
But doubts about the trip have been sewn and soul-searching has begun in Brussels about whether Washington even cares about Europe. If Obama doesn’t come, goes the thinking, it’s a blow to those who believe the 27-country EU, with its impressive economic power, might one day stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Washington in international affairs, and act as a counterweight to a rising Beijing.
Obama may still decide to come, and even if he doesn’t, there is still the annual U.S.-EU summit in the United States, scheduled for the autumn. But rather than a ‘will-he-come-or-won’t-he?’ story, the debacle says more about the awkward institutional structure of the EU and why it’s a barrier to the region becoming more influential.
Obama was invited by Spain before it took on its six-month presidency on Jan. 1. But before that tenure began, the EU brought into force the Lisbon treaty, which reformed the bloc’s structure, creating a new president of the Council of Ministers, effectively an EU president with a renewable 2-1/2-year mandate, and a more powerful high representative for foreign affairs.
Even though Spain is hosting the EU-U.S. summit, it will be chaired by the new EU president, Herman Van Rompuy. Van Rompuy’s office knew nothing on Monday about whether Obama was attending, saying only that it had read press reports that he wasn’t coming. Officials referred calls to the Spanish rotating presidency in Brussels, which is in charge of planning summits and other meetings for the next six months.
Even if Obama were to withdraw officially from the Madrid summit, it’s not clear from a protocol point of view who the White House should write to to explain: the Spanish EU presidency in Brussels, Van Rompuy’s office, the president of the European Commission or the Spanish prime minister’s office in Madrid.
The Lisbon treaty has been in force for only two months, but the question reputedly once asked by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?”, is still appears valid.