*Article publicat a Catalan International View
Washington has been sending signals for some time now. The European Union has lost its privileged position as a favoured partner of the United States and is being relegated to the role of faithful follower. Transatlantic relations are swimming in a sea of economic and political misunderstandings.
‘The Europeans have to forget Henry Kissinger’s telephone once and for all’ wrote Tom Spencer, executive director of the Centre for Public Affairs, at the start of the year. ‘Foreign relations no longer depend solely upon a good bilateral connection’. The European Union is not the only one to have to reinvent its foreign policy to adapt itself to the new players and new rules on the world stage. The United States is also hard at work defending its dominant position in a world that is turning towards Asia.
The Copenhagen Summit on climate change, organised by the UN in December 2009, confirmed European defeat when faced with the so-called G-2, the new transpacific axis that mutually observes, trusts and mistrusts each other. Sidelined from the final agreement between the United States and China in what was supposed to be its great role as a world leader, the EU finally woke up to the new geopolitical reality. A reality that it appeared to be the only one who was unaware of up until then.
Obama and Europe had already had several months of mutual disappointment that neither had so far dared to acknowledge. The Old Continent had unrealistic expectations on the arrival of the Democratic candidate in the White House. Meanwhile, the Obama administration had to accept that any electoral support did not imply the expected complicity or collaboration from this side of the Atlantic in tackling some of the priorities on Washington’s political agenda.
The European Union continues to be stuck in its own debates and in the temporal nature of its representation in foreign affairs that the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty has yet to fully resolve. The first time the new stable President of the Council of Europe, Herman Van Rompuy, and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, appeared before the press, minutes after their nomination, a German journalist asked them, ‘which of you will Barack Obama call now when he wants to talk to Europe?’. There was a brief, pregnant pause. Van Rompuy, Ashton, the President of the Commission Durao Barroso and the rotating President of the EU, the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt all exchanged glances. Following some malicious chuckles from the assembled journalists, Herman Van Rompuy replied, ‘I’m anxiously waiting for the first phone call’. At the time he did not know that the first call from Washington would be to confirm that Barack Obama did not plan to attend the bilateral EU-US summit that was to be held in the spring in Madrid and finally postponed. Obama fails to understand the European tendency to hold summits that are big on protocol whilst achieving little. According to him, their last joint summit of April 2009 in Prague was literally ‘a waste of time’ and the European Union did not appear to have got the message. The Spanish presidency seemed to have become so obsessed with the idea of who would be the first to shake Obama’s hand in Madrid that they completely forgot to work on the contents of a bilateral agenda that was politically poisonous. Nobody cares whether transatlantic relations run smoothly at all levels of administration, as the President of the European Commission José Manuel Durao Barroso argued. The politicians rubber stamp the work of the bureaucrats and they won’t meet so far.
The end of the affair
Reality has once more demonstrated that perhaps the US still does not know which number to ring, but the transatlantic telephone continues to work. The mutual disenchantment has festered for months on three radically different fronts: Afghanistan, the fight against terrorism and global economic governance. The European Union and the United States have clashed on the new financial regulation measures that need to be imposed on the markets. When the economic recovery began to appear, discussions within the G-20 for a change in the financial model and better government began to weaken. Both sides now appear to see the conclusions reached by the meeting in a very different light. The United States’ Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner, had no qualms in letting his misgivings be known in a letter to the EU regarding their intention to regulate high risk funds (hedge funds and private equity) which had been questioned since the financial crisis began. In case the message was not sufficiently clear and the accusations of protectionism against the Europeans did not have the desired effect, Washington called its allies in London. Premier Gordon Brown asked the Spanish presidency of the European Union for more time. Bilateral phone calls continue to work after all.
The American administration has found it more difficult to find the necessary partners to strengthen its military strategy in Afghanistan. Robert Gates, the United States Secretary of Defence, summed it up nicely for a group of NATO officers at the end of February, ‘the demilitarisation of Europe, where large sectors of the general population and the political class are against military force and the risk it brings with it, was a blessing during the twentieth century, but in the twenty-first century it has turned into a serious handicap to achieving security and lasting peace’. The United States observes with frustration as a Europe with a shrinking military budget reneges on support in terms of personnel and material for a war which is a priority for the Obama administration. This Europe that is proud of its soft power, the exporter of economic development and democratising reforms, sends soldiers to Afghanistan while refusing to accept the cost in terms of possible military and civilian casualties of a war that has go on for over 8 years. Nederland has paid the price with the fall of its government and Germany has reopened the debate as to its participation in military missions.
As a guardian and defender of European civil liberties, Europe has also become the voice of disagreement in the application of some controversial measures in the fight against terrorism. The most recent debate was held in the European parliament, leading to a renegotiation of the signed agreement between the EU and the US relating to the passing on of personal bank details of EU citizens. According to the Euro-parliament it is a measure that may infringe European citizens’ right to privacy.
Nonetheless, Europe reveals its own contradictions. The EU applauded when Obama announced the closure of the Guantánamo prison, but then it fell into an internal debate, which has still not been resolved, as to the possibility of transferring some prisoners to European prisons. The same territory in which the CIA organised rendition flights and illegal arrests of suspected terrorists, today hesitates before collaborating in dismantling of the shameful spectacle that is Guantánamo. Only a dozen or so EU states have agreed to the transfer of a small number of detainees. Barak Obama will have to wait until 2013 to be able to carry out the election promise he ratified just 48 hours after arriving in the White House.
Barack Obama has still not set foot in Brussels. When the American president looks to the Old Continent he thinks of its capitals and prioritises security and defence. NATO is considering a new defence strategy adapted to the new global threats (cyber-terrorism and the destructive effects of climate change). The United States speaks to Russia about disarmament. The president of the United States has already confirmed his attendance at the NATO summit to be held in Portugal next autumn. Meanwhile he deals with success the intense domestic political agenda that, in theory, spoiled the photo with Rodríguez Zapatero.
Transatlantic relations are weakening. Nevertheless, perhaps being stood up by Obama has done us a favour, forcing the Europeans to be more decisive, clarifying their representation with the exterior and adapting their expectations to the new situation and new global challenges. They should realise that the United States, China and India want a strong European Union with its own voice on a global level that will allow balance to be restored in this new game of power. The EU runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. The president for whom everyone had such high hopes was the one to show them. This has been a genuine wake up call. Now all we need to do is to answer it.