President Obama’s Decision to Forgo the U.S.-EU Summit in May and What It Means for Future U.S.–EU Relations
February 2, 2010
Q1: Why has President Obama decided not to attend the U.S.-EU Summit scheduled to be held in Spain in May?
A1: It is unclear exactly what prompted the administration to announce that the president was not planning nor scheduled to travel to Madrid for the next U.S.-EU Summit. The announcement has caught the European Union (with its 27 member states) and particularly Spain (which holds the rotating European Council presidency) by apparent surprise, setting off a scramble to decipher U.S. motivations for its decision to effectively cancel the meeting.
Q2: What is the purpose of these summit meetings? Don’t the president and senior members of the administration meet with European leaders all the time?
A2: The United States committed to participate in U.S.-EU Summit biannually when it signed the Transatlantic Declaration in 1990. In 2001, it was proposed that U.S-EU Summits occur only once a year. However in 2005, the United States gradually returned to the semiannual summit format. The Obama administration appeared to have accepted this biannual format as well during its first year in office.
Developing agendas for these summits takes significant preparation as the agendas can be quite diverse and very long: from economic and trade-related irritants to major foreign policy issues, such as Iran. The U.S.-EU Summit meetings are important vehicles as they are an opportunity to address significant issues at the highest levels and energize the respective bureaucracies to produce tangible outcomes. But having said this, these meetings are held in an unwieldy format and, absent strong leadership, the summits can tend to slide from substantive issues into tedium.
President Obama has certainly gone well above and beyond the European call of duty as he extensively traveled to Europe last year and held numerous meetings on multiple occasions with European leaders. He first met with EU leaders at an informal summit in Prague in April of last year where many believed he came away less than enthused for these types of get-togethers. The most recent U.S.–EU Summit, held in Washington in November, was even less successful as it was reported that the president met with the EU leadership for 90 minutes and left an extended conversation over lunch to Vice President Biden. Clearly, Obama does not believe these meetings accomplish very much, while the EU is growing increasingly frustrated that they could not sustain the interest and the attention of the president on issues that matter most to them.
Q3: How does this decision impact the broader transatlantic relationship?
A3: The timing of this decision as well as how the administration communicated it to Europe continues a two-month period of intra-European angst and uncertainty about its role as a major global actor. Beginning with its perceived failings at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December, where Europe did not play a role in the final conference outcome, and continuing with its most recent self-destructive rants about the lack of EU visibility in Haiti, the European Union has been having a very tough go of it as of late. Unfortunately, this decision will continue to feed EU insecurities at a time when the United States needs a strong, active, and engaged European Union on a multitude of issues. Coming just a few days after the London Conference where Europe pledged significant funding for Afghanistan stabilization and development, as well as troop increases, this decision seems particularly ill-timed.
It certainly isn’t the end of the world and perhaps a compromise will be found when Obama meets with Spanish prime minister Zapatero this week on the margins of the National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington. The silver lining in this immediate dark cloud is that both sides—the United States and the European Union—need to refocus their efforts on the quality and accomplishments of the U.S.-EU dialogue and not necessarily the quantity.
Heather A. Conley is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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© 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.