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Who do you call to speak to Europe?

May 17, 2010
Obama on the phone

Obama on the phone

Who do you call when you want to speak to Europe? The question, long attributed to Henry Kissinger, has yet to be answered convincingly by the 27-country European Union.

Six months ago, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a news conference the person to call on foreign policy issues was Catherine Ashton, who had just been chosen as the European Union’s foreign affairs chief.  The “so-called Kissinger issue is now solved”, he said.

Ashton reinforced that view on Monday by suggesting she was the person to call if Iran wanted to discuss the latest diplomatic moves on its nuclear programme. “They have my phone number,” she said.

But Barroso was more vague at the news conference last November when asked whom U.S. President Barack Obama should call if he wanted to speak to the EU. He pointed out that the EU was not one country, like the United States, China or Russia — implying they each had one clear leader. He seemed to be saying that the person you have to call depends on circumstances or the nature of the problem a foreign leader wishes to discuss.

So who did Obama call when he wanted to discuss the debt crisis threatening the group of 16 EU states that use the euro?

It wasn’t Ashton — as a Briton, she is not from a euro zone country and anyway this was a call about economics, which is not in her brief.

It wasn’t Herman Van Rompuy either, even though he too could stake a claim to be the face of Europe as the bloc’s first full-time president.

It wasn’t even Barroso, who heads the EU’s executive.

Obama chose to speak to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He later also spoke to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose country is trying to avoid going the same way as Greece and happens to have the EU presidency that each member state holds in turn for six months.

It could be argued that Obama spoke to these three leaders because the euro zone is not specifically represented by any of the EU institutions — the European Commission, the European Council of national leaders or the European Parliament.

But it could also be taken as evidence that outsiders still see France and Germany, the EU’s traditional powers, as the countries calling the shots in Europe.

It could also indicate that non-EU countries have still not got used to dealing with Van Rompuy and Ashton, widely seen as compromise candidates chosen by other European leaders who did not want powerful figures in their positions.

Barroso and Van Rompuy are not sitting by their phones anxiously waiting for Obama to ring, but a call might help them underline their authority. Leaders outside the EU may still be wondering whom they should call at times of crisis, but they would also like to be sure they would get the same answer whoever picks up the phone. That is unlikely, as Obama may have discovered when he spoke to Merkel and Sarkozy, who don’t see eye-to-eye on this crisis.

As long as this continues, it is not good for Europe and it is unlikely to be good for countries outside the EU that want to make sure the euro zone debt turmoil does not spread to other parts of the world.

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