Obama Sets Aside Only Two Hours to Meet With European Leaders at NATO Meeting in Portugal

By Patrick Goodenough | November 18, 2010 | 6:04 AM EST

President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso meets with President Obama in Washington in November 2009. (Photo: European Commission)

(CNSNews.com) – Nine months after disappointing European leaders with a decision not to attend a scheduled United States-European Union summit, President Obama will meet with E.U. leaders on the sidelines of the NATO gathering in Lisbon this weekend.

Two hours reportedly have been set aside for the meeting on Saturday afternoon, with a crammed agenda topped by economic issues and including security – especially in the light of recent terrorism alerts in Europe – trade, development aid and climate change.

Obama’s trip to Europe will be over in less than 48 hours during which, according to unconfirmed Russian media reports, time will be found for a separate meeting between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev, who will be in Lisbon for the NATO event, met with Obama just a week ago, in Japan.

The White House has not announced any bilaterals in Lisbon, apart from those with Portuguese leaders. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told a briefing Tuesday that “there may be additional bilateral meetings that the president is able to have on the margins of these summits.”

“The proposed U.S.-E.U. agenda is robust, but time is exceedingly short for discussion,” Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an analysis Wednesday.

“In just two hours, E.U. leaders and the U.S. president will discuss three baskets of issues on the economy, security and foreign policy, and global issues related to climate change and international aid coordination.”

She noted that “amidst a significant European economic crisis with major consequences for the United States and other countries,” less than two hours would be devoted to economic matters.

Conley likened transatlantic diplomacy to competitive figure skating, with marks awarded for technical merit as well as artistic ability.

The administration’s scores for technical merit were “fairly good,” she said, with officials from the two sides meeting frequently on a range of topics.

“The artistic marks, unfortunately, are low. There seems to be a deficit of energy, innovation, and enthusiasm on both sides.”

European Voice, an independent news outlet based in Brussels, said in an editorial last week that the U.S.-E.U. summit “is likely to be short and the agenda thin.”

“This so-called summit cannot even stand on its own: it is being attached to a two-day NATO summit, which itself will spotlight the discrepancies between military might and political willpower across the North Atlantic,” it commented.

Some analysts have a more optimistic view.

“A leaner and more focused summit will make it all the more palatable to President Obama, who seemed unhappy with the irrelevance of past agendas and Europe’s tendency towards navel gazing,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Justin Vaisse said in a paper previewing the Lisbon meeting.

A top priority, or downgraded relationship?

The administration argues that it prioritizes the relationship.

“When the Obama administration came into office, we made re-engaging with our European allies one of our top priorities,” assistant secretary of state for European affairs Philip Gordon said in a speech at Johns Hopkins University on October 18.

“President Obama did so because he recognized that we faced such a daunting international agenda that we could not possibly deal with it alone.”

Nonetheless, the relatively brief visit to Europe and short meeting come towards the end of a year during which E.U. leaders and commentators have fretted about a perceived downgrading in Obama’s interest in the transatlantic relationship.

In contrast, Obama visited Europe seven times in 2009 – a G20 summit in March; NATO and U.S.-E.U. summits in April; WWII commemoration events in June; a G8 summit in July; a trip to Denmark in October to promote Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid; a visit to Norway in December to accept the Nobel peace prize; and the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, also in December.

“I’d just also underscore that this is our eighth trip to Europe since the President took office, which I think again underscores the fundamental importance of our European allies to America’s security and prosperity and approach to the world,” Rhodes said in Tuesday’s White House conference call briefing.

That’s not the way many in Europe saw things last February when the E.U. officials learned – through media reports – that Obama would not be attending a U.S.-E.U. summit scheduled for Madrid three months later.

Regular presidential summits between the E.U. and U.S. began in the early 1990s and commentators noted that it was the first time in 17 years an American president would skip one.

The administration denied that Obama had canceled, with Gordon saying he had “a very full agenda” and had never intended to go in the first place.

Widely described in Europe as a “snub,” the move was particularly vexing as it was to have been the first such summit since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which aimed to streamline decision making, in part through the creation of full-time posts amounting to those of president and foreign minister for the 27-member union.

Far from seeing that as an opportunity for more effective collaboration, however, the administration suggested that the confusing E.U. structure played a part in Obama’s decision to skip Madrid.

Apart from the newly-established E.U. Council presidency, a post now held by Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, the E.U. has two other “presidencies” – the president of the E.U.’s executive Commission, currently Jose Manuel Barroso of Portugal, and the leader of whichever country holds the E.U. six-month rotating presidency.

“Because of the changes involving the establishment of a E.U. Council president and a European Commission president on top of the rotating E.U. presidency, I think it’s taking some time to work through exactly how various high-level meetings will happen,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in February.

(In Lisbon on Saturday Obama is due to meet with Van Rompuy, Barroso, and Catherine Ashton of Britain, whose formal title is high representative for foreign affairs.)

Focused on China, Russia

Although some of the reaction in Europe to Obama’s decision was directed inward, several other incidents added to a sense of shifted priorities. Last November, a delegation of top E.U. leaders visiting Washington for two days of meetings had 90 minutes with Obama and an official lunch hosted not by the president but by Vice President Joe Biden.

A week later, Obama chose not to attend a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead.

Analysts say Obama has been more focused on relations with an increasingly assertive China and the “reset” policy with Russia, than with ties with Europe.

“Obama will continue to think of engaging China as a top U.S. priority, and seek to get along with Russia and other emerging powers,” Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform in London, wrote this month.

“The issues that will compete for the president’s attention over the next few years will be Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process. Neither the E.U. nor Eastern Europe is likely to move up his agenda.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow