Obama’s Madrid snub exposes ‘excessive’ EU summitry

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The European Union holds too many bilateral summits too often, sometimes with unclear agendas. US President Barack Obama decided to skip the 24-25 May EU-US Madrid summit as a result of "excessive summitry", analysts told EURACTIV.

The White House's announcement that President Obama had no plans to travel to Madrid for a EU-US summit took the Brussels establishment by surprise.

"There were no plans for the president [Barack Obama] to travel to Spain for a summit this spring," National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer insisted in Washington on 1 February.

Without Obama's attendance, it is more likely that the summit will now be cancelled rather than downgraded.

"It is normally the case that the summits are summits precisely because they are attended by heads of state and government," European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen told the press in Brussels.

"Europeans in general tend to hold too many summits," Antonio Missiroli, director of the European Policy Centre, told EURACTIV.

"The agenda of leaders is packed with summits. Maybe focusing on fewer summits with more substance and more continuity in foreign relations in-between summits is the way ahead," Missiroli suggested.

According to the analyst, the recent trend in international relations, beyond the European Union, is that summits are the only way to accelerate decision-making.

Deadlines and the desirability of photo opportunities appear to be the only way to encourage faster decision-making, he said, describing this as a "perverse" trend in foreign relations.

"We should insist more on the substance of things, rather than on the protocol dimension," he said.

Asked if he saw a potential clash between the Spanish EU Presidency and permanent Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Missiroli said: "It is not a secret that from the beginning of the Spanish Presidency there has been a degree of tension, in particular between Mr. Van Rompuy and the Spanish government, over 'who should chair what', especially at international level," he said.

Topalànek Syndrome

The analyst also pointed to the fact that during the first year of his presidency, Obama had flown to Europe many more times than any other US president during a similar period.

Also, he recalled the "strange situation" at last year's EU-US summit in Prague, when the host, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, chaired the summit despite the fact that his cabinet had been brought down by parliament.

"At this point, Obama told his aides: 'This is a waste of my time'," Missiroli said, adding that the potential for sequels is still there, coupled, most probably, with "possible confusion" surrounding the preparation of the summit.

Missiroli also explained that Obama is bound by national priorities with mid-term elections in sight, saying these are also an important part of the picture.

He said that the US decision should not be seen as an affront to the Spanish EU Presidency or to Europe, nor did it mean that EU-US relations had deteriorated. But it was not "entirely accidental," he concluded.

"The question now being asked in relation to EU external policy is whether the Lisbon Treaty is creating more difficulties than it is resolving," Stanley Crossick, director and founding chairman of the European Policy Centre, wrote in Blogactiv. 

The veteran EU pundit writes that the wrangling over the next EU-US summit shows that the EU will not get its act together until the egotism of member-state leaders is brought under control.

"One thing looks increasingly certain. Obama will not be at a Madrid summit nor, I suspect, at a Brussels one," writes Crossick.

“President Obama is at the moment more focused on US employment and economic issues than US/EU affairs,” Bruce Jackson, an American political strategist, told an event in the European Parliament today (2 February). “There are currently six different EU presidents, the rotating EU presidency president [José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero], Mr Barroso, Mrs Ashton, plus Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, who also aim to be EU presidents,” he added.

The Spanish EU Presidency announced a record number of bilateral summits:

  • 8 March 2010: EU-Morocco summit in Granada;
  • 21 April: EU-Pakistan summit, Brussels;
  • 28 April: EU-Japan summit, Tokyo;
  • 3-4 May: Alliance of Civilizations conference, Córdoba;
  • 16 May 2010: EU-Mexico summit in Santander;
  • 17 May: EU-Chile summit, Madrid;
  • 18 May: EU-Latin America and Carribean summit, Madrid;  
  • 19 May: EU-Andean Community summit, Madrid;
  • 19 May: EU-MERCOSUR summit, Madrid;
  • 20 May: EU-Central America summit, Madrid;
  • 24 May: EU-US summit, Madrid;
  • 30 May-1 June: EU-Russia summit, Rostov;
  • 31 May: EU-Canada summit, Brussels;
  • 6 June: EU-Egypt summit, Barcelona;
  • 7 June: Union for the Mediterranean summit, Barcelona.

 

A few days ago, it emerged that the Spanish Presidency is facing an uphill battle to host the EU-US summit in Madrid (EURACTIV 27/01/10).

Herman Van Rompuy's spokesperson, Dirk De Backer, told EURACTIV that in future, according to the Lisbon Treaty, all EU summits with third countries will be presided over and prepared by the Council president, which implies they will take place in Brussels.

But as the Spanish Presidency marks a transitional period, De Backer added that Madrid had proposed to Washington that the summit be held in the Spanish capital.

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