Analyst: 'Brussels must reform EU-US summits'

  

"Europeans must realise that US President [Barack] Obama needs a concrete and political return on every hour that he invests in the transatlantic relationship," Annette Heuser, executive director of the Bertelsmann Foundation North America (Washington, D.C.), told EurActiv Germany in an interview.

The Bertelsmann Foundation, established in 2008, is the North American arm of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. It serves as a Euro-American bridge, communicating and showcasing best practice in foreign, economic and social policy to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

Heuser was speaking to EurActiv Germany's Alexander Wragge.

How do you assess the relationship of the Obama administration with the current EU leadership, represented by Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso?

Brussels is not on speed dial. Instead of one telephone number, Washington now has four. And all four executives representing the EU must demonstrate that they can deliver on the most important issues affecting transatlantic relations. Until they do this, Washington's relationship with the EU leadership will be less than what those in Brussels would like it to be.

Does the Obama administration take the new EU leadership seriously?

The US administration is not interested in the institutional or personal organisation of the new post-Lisbon Treaty European Union. For Washington the only thing that counts is identifying concrete points for cooperation on which Europe can deliver. Washington knows that the EU has a new executive set-up with a so-called foreign minister and European Council president.

But the occupants of those offices do not garner automatic American respect. For that, they need to demonstrate that they are reliable, have the power to execute policy and establish unity among member states that can have disparate interests. Washington wants to have support for high-priority policies on issues ranging from climate change to foreign-policy challenges.

Why did the planned EU-US summit fail (EurActiv 02/02/10)?

It failed first and foremost due to the eagerness of the Spanish EU Presidency to have President Obama present at the meeting. But the president never confirmed in the first place that he would attend the summit in Madrid.

The Europeans must reform EU-US summits and make them more operational if they are to attract US interest. The Europeans should see the inability of President Obama to attend the summit as the first and only wake-up call from Washington for reforming EU-US summits.

You say the EU-US summits are just a show. Why?

The problem with the current EU-US summit set-up is that the photo-op is the highlight of the gathering. This may be normal for a top-level political meeting, but content must count as well.

What can the EU do to get more attention from the Obama government?

The Europeans must give President Obama reasons to invest his precious time in transatlantic affairs so that he can justify that investment in front of the US public and the Republican opposition. The Europeans must realise that the president needs a concrete and political return on every hour that he invests in the transatlantic relationship.

Is Europe not important enough for the Obama administation?

Europe must demonstrate that it is relevant as an indispensable partner for the US. It must confront effectively the challenges that our societies on both sides of the Atlantic face. Europe must be more than a club with 27 members with an unwieldy bureaucracy in Brussels. It must become a more united and pragmatic actor on the world stage.

What kind of cooperation is the US interested in?

For the Americans, issue number one is the financial crisis and how to use transatlantic cooperation to safeguard and generate jobs at home. On the foreign policy front, Iran is the most important issue now, followed by Afghanistan and energy security. The last topic, of course, is critical for managing the transatlantic relationship with Russia. Washington is especially interested in a close dialogue to detemine where the EU's dominant player, Germany, stands on its relationship with Moscow.

Regarding Iran, the Americans expect the Europeans to support them unconditionally on a new round of sanctions. And on Afghanistan, the Europeans, in additional to their financial engagement, must deliver on the agreed increases in troops and civilian reconstruction forces if they are to score points in Washington.

European projects are often a lengthy, complex and bureaucratic process. How strong is the opposition to the pragmatic political style in the US, represented by Obama?

It is a misperception that President Obama is omnipotent. As we have seen recently with his ambitious policy projects on healthcare reform, climate change and the START Treaty with Russia, the president is forced to rely on Congressional support to implement his agenda. But he has difficulties getting his policies through both houses of Congress.

Obama's governing style differs from that of the Europeans because he strongly articulates his vision and policy agenda. But only with the cooperation of both Congressional chambers can he appear to be powerful, because the American political system can severely restrict the authority of the Oval Office.

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