Europe’s friend, George Bush

To anyone who wasn’t immersed in the finer details of the Treaty of Lisbon, January was a confusing month.  Lisbon was supposed to put an end to that rotating presidency of the European Union by establishing a permanent Council presidency headed by Herman Van Rompuy and a high representative for foreign policy, in which case Henry Kissinger’s famous question — if I want to phone Europe, who do I call? — seemed to have been reduced to a fairly small number of people.

But move forward from 2009 with the successful Swedish presidency of the EU billed as the last one under old system and … er… Spain has the Presidency for the first half of 2010, PM Jose Luis Zapatero is hosting events just like under the old system and there’s a Spanish presidency website that looks pretty much look the other pre-Lisbon websites (although at the risk of repetition of praise, the Swedes really had a model of concise clarity for their operation which has not been replicated).

So what’s the point?  The point is the the Spain EU calendar for May 2010 showed an EU-USA summit for May 23-25.  Anyone who showed up early has a chance of catching the new format Champions League final played that Saturday in Madrid.   But as the Wall Street Journal explains, there’s just one problem, or rather two problems.  Since the summit should involve the new permanent EU Council President, it should be in Brussels.  And anyway, Barack Obama isn’t coming.  As the Journal describes it

In recent days, stories in the European press have described a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between Mr. Van Rompuy and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero over summit minutiae such as the seating plan for the dinner with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

But on Monday, Mr. Van Rompuy’s spokesman distanced himself from the entire gathering. The ill-fated May summit “was prepared by the Spanish,” said Dirk De Backer. “The permanent presidency has never been involved.”

It’s not like the Obamas are doing no travel in the 1st half of 2010.  There is a full family trip (apparently carefully timed for US Spring Break) to Indonesia and Australia.  And he managed 2 trips to Copenhagen, with questionable outcomes, last year.  Notwithstanding the claims from White House sources about the desire to focus on domestic issues, instead the issue with the EU summit seems to plain old irritation with the “who’s in charge” question: who is the counterpart, and where it will be?  Reasonable questions for the President’s planners to ask.

All this is a long way from the George Bush approach.  The EU-USA summits were big events on his calendar: here he is in Slovenia for the 1st half of 2008 summit, and here he is having a financial crisis-themed summit with then EU bosses Barroso and Sarkozy in the 2nd half of the year.  And you can look back each year and see the meetings.  One suspects that he and EU Commission President Barroso had a bond going all the way the back to that fateful Azores summit of 2003.

So was it that under the pre-Lisbon system, it was easier to figure out the procedural aspects of the summit, or that Bush cared more than Obama about the relationship with the EU as a stand-alone entity?  Neither question is especially comforting for the new re-tooled EU.

UPDATE: Statement from the Spanish EU Presidency confirming that Obama will not come —

“We have just been informed of this decision”, said the Spanish Minister at a press briefing in Jerusalem, “but we understand that President Obama’s agenda at this time will not permit him to travel to Europe as he was hoping”.

Given the need to concentrate on economic and budgetary issues, it might be just as well.

5 thoughts on “Europe’s friend, George Bush

  1. I’m not sure this is such a bad thing. If I were an American President, I would want to connect directly to the bits of Europe that I wanted something from.

    I don’t think I would want to go to Brussels to ask for British troops in Afghanistan, for example, and certainly not for confidential talks with British security.

    There is a certain wooden-headedness, IMHO, in the drive to make Europe one “country” when in reality different parts of Europe have very different exposures to the international scene, different capabilities, different levels of experience and different policies.

    If I am Obama, am I really that interested in “Europe”‘s vote on the deployment of British ships, or do I just want the ships? Who really cares what Berlusconi and Zapatero think about the Royal Navy? They don’t pay for it, anyway, although I expect they would be delighted to posture over its use.

    And I think you can say similar things about a European country’s support for the US at the UN, or a European country’s Banking system.

    Imagine if Paulson had had to go to Brussels as Lehmann was melting down. Dealing with Darling was no doubt enough of a hassle, but imagine if Paulson had had to wait for Darling to line up votes by Papandreu and Sarkozyn – who no doubt would have gloried in being thoroughly obstructive abut helping those irresponsible Anglo-Saxons.

    Speed counts.

  2. Lisbon was supposed to put an end to that rotating presidency of the European Union by establishing a permanent Council presidency headed by Herman Van Rompuy and a high representative for foreign policy

    This is probably the biggest mistake commentators have overlooked for long: The Lisbon Treaty never intended to get rid of the rotating presidency, it just formally installed a separate institution – the European Council – that now needed a formal leadership.

    What we are seeing now is just simply that the power balances have not been clearly set out in the EU Treaties, Lisbon version. And it is good that Obama doesn’t come because this might put some pressures on the EU institutions to sort that out.

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