EU-US to iron out differences at November summit

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The EU and the US are set to discuss their recent foreign and economic policy differences when they meet in Lisbon on 20 November, on the margins of a NATO summit, the European Commission announced yesterday (17 August).

Seemingly adopting a lower profile domestically after having fallen somewhat short of expectations since his 2008 election, US President Barack Obama will meet EU leaders in November, immediately after the US mid-term elections.

Although a detailed agenda is yet to be finalised, financial regulation, climate change, trade, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and visa policy will be at the core of the talks.

The EU and the US took mirroring approaches in announcing the summit, with both underlining that in the wake of the financial crisis, the economic transatlantic relationship is "vital to global prosperity". Both powers stressed their commitment to cooperating "to promote strong and sustained growth in our economies," read two notes published yesterday by the White House and the European Commission. 

Last month, however, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said he was deeply disappointed about the current state of the transatlantic relationship, describing it as a "missed opportunity for Europe".

"The transatlantic relationship is not living up to its potential. I think we should do much more together. We have conditions like we have never had before and it would be a pity if we missed the opportunity," he said in an interview with The Times.

Other French officials feel the same and have reportedly underlined that President Obama is only interested in Asia and Russia, not Europe. "There is no sense of a privileged relationship. They seem to take us for granted sometimes," an aide to French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the press.

Earlier this year Herman Van Rompuy, permanent president of the European Council, expressed his vision for reviving relations between the two powers, describing them as being "at a crossroads".

"We must not treat every disagreement as a crisis," Van Rompuy said, although the opportunity to demonstrate unity with the superpower will be welcomed in European capitals seeking to arouse confidence in domestic markets.

Despite perceptions, the EU held a record number of bilateral summits during the recent Spanish Presidency, raising questions as to whether the Lisbon Treaty has boosted the strategic aspect of its foreign policy.

Obama's snub of an EU-US summit in Madrid (see 'Background') reiterated doubts and sparked European silence following calls for prisoners to be removed from Guantánamo Bay and troops to be contributed towards the NATO war effort in Afghanistan.

Another sticking point is US support for Turkey joining the EU, an issue that divides its member states. The EU also suffered a blow at the Copenhagen UN climate conference in December 2009, when President Barack Obama snubbed the EU to secure a deal with China and India (EURACTIV 19/12/09).

The summit will take place under the Belgian EU Presidency. Unlike the previous occasion, when Obama went to the EU-US summit in Prague in May 2009 under the Czech Presidency, this time the host will not be the EU presidency holder.

Because the NATO summit takes place in Lisbon on 19-20 November, Obama will meet EU leaders immediately afterwards. This tight schedule avoids the risk of the US administration visiting a country which for the time being is still struggling to form a government.

To prepare for the upcoming EU-US summit, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton will travel to Washington next month and meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who describes her as an "equal counterpart" in solving global problems after years of the 'Henry Kissinger question' dominating relations between the two partners. 

EU-US relations have been on a somewhat bumpy ride in recent years with disagreements over issues ranging from the Iraq war to the Kyoto climate treaty and the International Criminal Court.

With the election of Barack Obama as US president, the EU thought EU-US relations would take a different turn (EURACTIV 14/11/08). But a recent series of events have shaken EU-US relations even further.

Brussels was disappointed when the US administration announced reform of its banking system, unilaterally undercutting discussions within the G20 Financial Stability Board on coordinating regulation on financial services.

To make matters worse, Obama decided not to attend the annual EU-US summit in Madrid in May as he had more urgent matters to deal with at home (EURACTIV 02/02/10). 

Convergence seems weak on issues related to combating terrorism. In February, the European Parliament rejected the SWIFT agreement on banking data transfers to the US (EURACTIV 11/02/10).

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