Obama’s Widening Rift with Europe

The Obama administration gave another indication on Monday of its indifference toward Europe by advising the Spanish government — as the current holders of the European Union’s rotating presidency — that President Barack Obama will be a no-show at the next E.U.-U.S. summit in Madrid this spring. Obama’s decision was “a setback for the Spanish government,” observed the newspaper El Pais, “a reversal for the European Union, and a clear message of the [Obama] administration’s international priorities.”

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was counting on the ever-popular Obama’s visit to Spain to bolster his own sagging poll numbers in the face of his country’s deep economic problems. He had also made the improvement of U.S.-European ties one of the objectives of Spain’s six-month EU presidency.

Obama has developed a well-known allergy to international summits, particularly E.U. summits that require him to sit through speeches by the leaders of all 27 European member states, from the largest (Germany) to the smallest (Malta). He is also said to be irritated by a peculiarity of the European gatherings, which don’t arrive at solid decisions, but at best create a consensus for decisions to surface later. Add to that Obama’s formidable domestic challenges — the economy, the uncertain future of his health care reform, and the looming mid-term elections — and there is a strong case for not roaming abroad, at least until after the first Tuesday in November.

At the last E.U.-U.S. summit in Washington in December, Obama skipped the usual lunch, but attended the bilateral talks that lasted for a mere 90 minutes. Some European officials saw that as the writing on the wall.

But the Europeans must accept a lot of the blame for disappearing off Obama’s radar screen. Is there much point to these twice-yearly E.U.-U.S. summits, when lack of European cohesion continues to offer Washington backdoor access to the governments that it wants to do business with when and as it needs to?

And perhaps more important, has the fledgling, post-Lisbon-agreement Europe shown any sign of deserving more attention by becoming more assertive on the world stage — or does Brussels need to borrow a couple of pages from Beijing’s playbook when it comes to catching Obama’s full attention? A case in point was the Washington visit two weeks ago of Baroness Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s new high representative for foreign affairs and security. Her debut here went virtually unnoticed — especially on the Hill, where she needed to make an impact. One also wonders how many U.S. officials, let alone the American public, can name the E.U.’s new president (hint: former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy).

Obama’s snub — as the move is seen by the Spaniards — comes at a time when many Europeans are realizing that memory can no longer hold the Atlantic partnership together. After all, who is left to remember? The World War II/Cold War generation has faded from Washington government. The same generation has gone from Europe too. But Europeans tend to cling to history a bit longer.