President Obama’s decision to skip the annual U.S.-EU summit in Europe, May 24-25, has not endeared him to some Europeans; many of whom once again feel spurned by the man they have so greatly admired, and whose election they so ardently wished for. As reported by The New York Times, “In addition to the palpable sense of insult among European officials, there is a growing concern that Europe is being taken for granted and losing importance in American eyes compared with the rise of a newly truculent China.” The problem here is twofold: It is indeed problematic on a global scale if the transatlantic alliance has been thus downgraded by the Obama administration. Yet, Europeans bear some of the responsibility in this: their reluctance to support the United States in Afghanistan and their creation of ineffectual and tangled EU institutions have become impediments to relations with the United States.
Particularly aggrieved was Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who was to host the summit in Madrid as the head of the country holding the rotating presidency of the European Council. Like other Europeans leaders, Zapatero, who faces reelection next year, would like to enhance his stature and bask in the Obama glow, and this opportunity was denied him by the presidential non-appearance. In addition, Zapatero arrived in Washington yesterday for high level meetings that interestingly do not include a one-on-one sit down with Obama in the White House.
With the leadership mess the European Union created with the Lisbon Treaty, one can understand the White House’s hesitance to wade into the fray. The EU right now has the opposite of a leadership vacuum – in fact it has a leadership surfeit with no fewer than four presidents in office at the same time. Europeans love institutions and bureaucracies, and they have managed to create so many within the EU that total confusion now reigns.
There is Zapatero, who is prime minister of the country, i.e. Spain that currently holds the 6-month rotating presidency of the European Council. His closest rival is Herman von Rompuy, who is the newly minted president of the European Council, meant to be the ceremonial head of the EU. Then there is the president of the European Commission, and, finally, the president of the European Parliament. Over the past few months, a power struggle has emerged between Zapatero and Von Rompuy as to who is really at the top.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, it seems equally difficult to coordinate the White House and the State Department. Confusingly, a few weeks back, two senior U.S. officials – Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon traveled to Madrid for a preparatory meeting for the summit – which the president now says he won’t be attending.
It is perfectly understandable that President Obama has decided not to travel to Madrid. Snubbing Brussels sends an important message that Washington is less than impressed with the EU’s leadership. He must though be careful not to undermine the broader relationship with Europe as a whole, especially the ties with European nation states. For many reasons, there is a real impression emerging in Europe that Obama does not see himself as an Atlanticist. For Russia, China, and Iran among others, a divided transatlantic alliance is music to their ears, and will only weaken American leadership in the world.