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The testy relationship between Obama and the EU.

Last week’s U.S.-EU annual summit differed from its predecessors in ways that fuel the perception on the other side of the Atlantic that Barack Obama is just not that interested in Europe. First, there was the venue of the opening lunch: Blair House, the government’s official guest house, not the usual White House. Then, there was the luncheon’s host: Vice-President Joe Biden, not the president himself. And, finally, there was the time frame for discussion: European leaders only got 90 minutes of direct talks with the president instead of the customary two hours (minimum), plus a press conference.

According to European Union sources, EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was so furious at what Brussels considered a downgrading of the summit that, at one point, he threatened not to attend the lunch at all.

This all feeds into what The New York Times calls “an underlying disaffection” between the Obama administration and America’s oldest and most trusted allies. Last Monday, The Guardian sniped, “Obama’s apparent lack of interest in America’s European allies--some call it indifference, even disdain--is a source of growing unease on the Old World side of the Atlantic.”

The general lines of the argument are that Washington feels Europeans haven’t strongly enough supported Obama’s foreign priorities; notably, that they haven’t sent more troops to Afghanistan and that they haven’t been more amenable to housing former Guantanamo detainees. Dissatisfied Europeans, on the other hand, think the administration’s actions and policies are frequently hard to read--scrapping the planned U.S. anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic in September was a case in point--and that Washington has dragged its feet on concerns such as climate change and the Middle East (backtracking on Israeli settlement expansion.)

But it goes deeper than that. The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) summed up an influential new report thusly: “An unsentimental President Obama has lost patience with a Europe lacking coherence and purpose.” According to the report, Obama’s first EU-U.S. summit, in Prague last April, left the president incredulous. “To Americans, these summits are all too typical of the European love of process over substance, and a European compulsion for everyone to crowd into the room regardless of efficiency,” the report says.

The 71-page report also charges that Europe has a “fetishist” obsession with how it is viewed in the United States. Its two writers, Nick Witney, a former British diplomat, and Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, say that while the United States is focused on seeking pragmatic new alliances with emerging powers such as China, Europe is still psychologically wedded to its Cold War dependence on the trans-Atlantic connection

The White House, predictably, will not comment on Obama’s supposed lack of interest in Europe. But a couple of administration sources said the somewhat perfunctory atmosphere of Tuesday’s summit could well have been influenced by imminent institutional changes in the European Union.

EU officials are predicting that by January 2010 they will have put in place the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, which has finally achieved its last signature after a long, tormented process. One important projected change will be the centralization of European foreign policy in Brussels; the 27 member nations will elect a European president (to a two and a half year term) and a high representative or foreign minister (for five years).

Whether a strong, assertive Europe would end up being more of a rival than an ally to the United States has long been a matter of debate inside previous administrations. Obama, for his part, has publicly supported the idea.

Europe specialist Federiga Bindi of Brookings thinks a stronger EU could make the president’s life easier. “Obama has a far reaching global agenda in which there is space and need for a European partner,” she said. “There would be disagreements from time to time, but the European Union still represents the best hope America has of finding a steady partner to share the load.”  

A big obstacle--if not the biggest--will be Europe’s ability to “speak with one voice,” says Charles Kupchan, expert on U.S.-EU relations at the Council on Foreign Relations. And, as it happens, events in Washington last Tuesday provided an example of what EU reform will be up against when it comes to national interests clashing with EU actions. By some peculiar quirk of scheduling, German Chancellor Angela Merkel--newly re-elected and more firmly in charge than before--stole some of the U.S.-EU summit’s thunder by not only addressing the joint houses of Congress that day, but also bymeeting one-on-one with Obama. Her congressional speech included a strong appeal for decisive American action on climate change--the summit agenda’s top item.

Roland Flamini is a Washington-based writer with a special interest in foreign affairs. He writes a column for CQ Weekly.