‘Worried 27’ seeking reassurance

ECFR agony uncle Richard Gowan offers reassurance to 'Worried 27' about their unrequited transatlantic love

Senior Policy Fellow

Dear Agony Uncle,

What do you do
if a special relationship starts feeling stale? We are the leaders of
27 nice, sensible European powers, and we always thought we had
something pretty special with the USA. We were hoping to take that to a
new level with President Obama. But he seems more interested in hanging
out with the Chinese and Indians in the G20.

Now
he has decided not to attend the EU-US summit the Spanish are planning
for May. Even George Bush never did this! Doesn’t Barack take our
relationship seriously?

Worried 27, Brussels

Dear Worried 27,

It’s
time to calm down. President Obama decided not to come to one summit.
You’ve reacted by looking anxious and needy. Nobody finds neediness
attractive. Stop it.

You’re looking clingy as
well. President Obama has been to Europe six times since taking office
– compared to one trip to China, and none to India. Sometimes it feels
like you guys would only be happy if he talked to Europeans and no one
else at all.

Remember all that silliness at the
UN General Assembly in September? Gordon Brown got worked up because he
couldn’t get a one-to-one meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the
conference. But the annual UN bash is the only time the president has
the chance to talk to leaders from many African and Asian countries –
so he naturally didn’t have a lot of time for Europeans he gets to see
elsewhere. Give the man a bit of breathing space.

Let’s
get down to the real issue here. Is it the president who isn’t taking
this relationship seriously, or is it you? You’re measuring how well
things are going by how many times you meet, but great photo
opportunities aren’t always the same as great foreign policy.

Take,
for example, the ritual that grew up around transatlantic meetings on
Afghanistan last year. The US would signal in advance that it hoped
Europe would offer more troops. European diplomats would mutter that
this looked very difficult. In the end, a small group of NATO members
typically stumped up a few extra hundred soldiers each – enough to
declare success, but hardly a satisfying return on grinding diplomatic
work.

For many American officials, this is
indicative of Europe’s multilateralism: heavy on the talk, light on
outcomes. The nadir was the first EU-US summit in 2009, hosted by the
Czechs, where every single EU leader turned up with a statement –
leaving Obama dazed and confused. This year’s cancelled summit would
not have been that bad. Spanish officials were paring back the agenda,
but it has yet to coalesce into anything special.

The
summit could have gone ahead, with lots of sugary speeches in front of
the cameras. But US officials have learnt that once the platitudes are
out of the way, you Europeans can be nasty about the president behind
the scenes. Nicolas Sarkozy made nice with Obama at last year’s G20 and
G8 summits, but was quoted as calling him inexperienced.

It
is hard to imagine Herman Van Rompuy or Catherine Ashton saying
anything so disobliging. But be honest with yourselves, Worried 27: can
you really blame the president for skipping an event without a
compelling agenda or goals? Sure, George W Bush turned up for that sort
of thing – but he thought that all conferences were pointless gab-fests
anyway. Barack Obama is a bit more stringent when it comes to getting
results.

It’s hard, I know. After all, you
spend half your time in slightly pointless meetings with each other.
President Obama hasn’t always been very fair with you – he decided to
upgrade the G20 and (by implication) downgrade the G8 without drawn-out
consultations in Europe.

But he still needs
and wants Europeans to be his friends. It’s just that you’re a very
high-maintenance bunch of people to be friends with. You shouldn’t
obsess about this. You’ll have lots of quality time together in future.
For now, though, he’s just not that into EU.

The Agony Uncle

This piece first appeared in e!sharp

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow