This piece was first published in The Guardian on 4 June 2009.
European countries lined up to applaud President Obama’s order that the Guantánamo Bay detention centre should be closed within a year. But the European Union has so far failed to offer the American president the assistance he needs to meet this ambitious target. Now, as European interior ministers meet to discuss Guantánamo today, they should seize the opportunity to help the US end the legacy of George Bush’s “war on terror”.
Dozens of Guantánamo detainees have been cleared for release but cannot be returned to their home countries because they would face torture or persecution. Obama has appealed for Europe to take some of these prisoners as a gesture of solidarity with the US. There are strong reasons of human decency for European countries to admit detainees who have spent years in limbo and deserve the chance to reconstruct their lives. Resettling some of these prisoners – who have expressed a wish to come to Europe – would show support for Obama’s efforts to bring American counterterrorism policy into line with the rule of law.
But Europe’s response has been slow. Only now is it close to finalising a common procedure for handling American requests – a draft agreement has been tabled for a meeting of EU interior ministers that starts today in Luxembourg. Some EU countries have suggested they will consider taking prisoners, but the lack of a European framework has prevented discussions with the US from gaining momentum. The European Union should now agree a common position, and member states should move quickly to agree to take detainees in individual cases.
Until now, security concerns have tended to dominate the European debate, with not enough attention to the bigger strategic interests that are at stake. In his recent flagship speech on counterterrorism, Obama said that terrorists would only succeed if they could alienate the US from its allies. The transatlantic divisions caused by President Bush’s “war on terror” were a major problem for both Europe and the US, and the two share an interest in drawing a line underneath them.
Of course, there remain differences between European and American approaches to terrorism. Obama continues to talk of a global war against al-Qaida, while Europeans reject this idea. The US reserves for itself the right to detain al-Qaida agents found anywhere in the world – as demonstrated by the new US attorney general Eric Holder, who said in his Senate confirmation hearing that he would regard someone captured by the CIA in the Philippines and suspected of financing al-Qaida worldwide as part of the battlefield in a war. The Obama administration has already authorised strikes from pilotless drones against al-Qaida officials in Pakistan – which many Europeans oppose.
Europeans may have different views about whether the new president has struck the right balance between the demands of human rights, national security and domestic politics. But they should recognise that Obama has taken some major steps towards restoring American adherence to the rule of law, something Europeans have long called for. Among other decisions, he has taken an unequivocal line on torture and inhuman treatment and closed down the CIA’s secret prison network. Even where they disagree, Europeans might acknowledge that Obama will operate with much greater respect for due process and the international laws of war than George W Bush.
The shift under Obama opens the possibility that Europe and the US could – for the first time since 9/11 – agree a common framework of principles for counterterrorism based around respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law. By working with the US on Guantánamo, the European Union might gain influence over the development of US policy, where many key decisions remain to be taken. At the same time, Europeans might insist that the US also admits some former detainees who want to settle in America.
Obama is facing tough political opposition in the US over the closure of Guantánamo. Already, he is being mocked by opponents such as Dick Cheney, who says that his action is designed to impress foreign countries but will not make America safer. The EU needs to support his efforts by showing that a shift in America’s stance on international law will bring tangible benefits through better international co-operation.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.