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Obama and Europe

Gavin Hewitt | 11:29 UK time, Monday, 2 November 2009

Almost a year ago I stood in Chicago and watched a tidal wave of celebration cascade through Grant Park as the screens flashed up an Obama victory. An African-American had defied the weight of history and had become the most powerful man in the world.

It was not just an American night, it was a global event. I met young Brits and Europeans who had made the journey to say they were there the night America changed. I got texts from far-flung places with just three words: "Yes we can".

On that night it was easy to dream, but looking back at my report I wrote this:

"Briefly, he (Obama) stood alone between the bullet-proof panels; a foretaste of the loneliness of power; the certainty that the burden of expectations will be impossible to meet. So history turns. The torch passed last night to a man of high ideals who will face daunting challenges from his very first day in the White House."

Europe had got the president it wanted. Earlier I had watched 200,000 people turn out for Obama in Berlin. He was only a candidate, not even the nominee. The crowd yearned for a Kennedy moment with a young politician full of energy and high-ideals.

Tomorrow in Washington there is a summit between the Obama administration and the European Union. German Chancellor Merkel will address both houses of congress.

The love affair with Obama was always one-sided. Europeans wanted Obama; he
was less certain what Europe offered him.

For some Europeans the Bush years had been brutal. There was the snide reference to "old Europe" when there was a reluctance to support the Iraq invasion. Some Americans wanted to take the "French" out of fries. And then there was the New York paper that replaced the faces of the French and German foreign ministers with that of weasels. A spineless Security Council was branded the "council of weasels". Europe felt marginalised as America rode off alone to settle scores and fashion the world to its own design.

Obama, however, made Europeans feel included once again. He offered the hand of partnership. He signed up to multilateralism. It was only 11 days after he came into office that the Nobel Committee nominated him for the peace prize.

But as Obama's first year unfolded, old difficulties began to re-emerge.

Europe liked the early commitment to close Guantanamo Bay, although it remains in business.

It applauded the decision of the Obama administration to re-engage with Iran although uncertainty remains to what the new policy will deliver and whether Iran will send its stockpiles of uranium out of the country.

In the Middle East, Europe had wanted Obama to throw his prestige behind
peace talks but progress remains glacial and the administration has said that talks should not hinge on freezing Israeli settlements. Many European countries would
prefer Washington to take a tougher line with the Israelis.

On climate change, Europe prided itself that it was leading the world to get a deal in Copenhagen. At breakfast last week I heard a senior European official say: "We urged President Obama to show leadership... and he promised to make an effort."
The Europeans have put some figures on the table as to the cost of fighting climate change but they have essentially fudged what they individually would stump up.
The reality is that in Washington climate change gets second billing to healthcare.
President Obama may not even travel to Copenhagen. One Member of the European Parliament, Joe Leinen, said: "The US is still looking inwards, while Europe is looking outwards." Old complaints are re-surfacing.

The key area of common interest is Afghanistan. After long being chided for unwillingness to commit forces the Europeans have over 30,000 troops in the country.
Yet Europe is essentially waiting on Obama to conclude his brain-storming sessions with his advisers. The fact remains that Europe has virtually no say in strategy.

A revealing analysis published today by the European Council on Foreign Relations goes straight to the point and asks whether Europe has wasted its Obama moment. It says that Europe got the President it wanted but Washington remains enormously frustrated with Europe to speak with clarity and conviction. "Washington is disappointed with Europe," it says, "and sees EU member states as infantile: responsibility shirking and attention."

The writers challenge Europe to develop their own strategy for Russia, for the Middle East, for Afghanistan if they want to be taken seriously.

And here's the dilemma. The European Union is focused on its new jobs, the President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs. To the apocryphal Henry Kissinger complaint that he did not know who to call in Europe, a senior official said last week that, in future, the call would be taken by the High Representative. But he or she can only reflect the views of the member states.

So there may be a new and popular president in the White House and Europe has not fallen out of affection with him but Obama, as presidents before him, finds Europe an uncertain partner. Whatever the institutional changes, Europe runs up against the old problem; the more they seek to speak with clarity, the more they risk diminishing the influence of the member states.


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