Does Obama understand Europe?

Does Obama understand Europe?

13th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

During his last visit to Europe, Barack Obama won the hearts of the Europeans. This time around, it was their leaders he had to impress. Does the US president understand enough about Europe to turn his popular image into political support?

During his last visit to Europe, Barack Obama won the hearts of the Europeans. This time around, it was their leaders he had to impress. Does the US president understand enough about Europe to turn his popular image into political support?

Last summer, Ed van Dijk, chairperson of the Dutch Obama Club, saw the American presidential candidate deliver a speech in Berlin. He even shook his hand. But this time,  Dijk stayed home.

"Berlin was for the people but this is really for the politicians," he said.

He would have liked the US president to address the public again on his plans. "Obama would have definitely received a warm welcome," says Dijk. However, the same cannot be said for the European leaders Obama met with last weekend. Mirek Topolanek, the outgoing prime minister of the Czech Republic which currently holds the EU presidency, recently called Obama's approach to the financial crisis "a road to hell."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also has difficulty with the US president's plan. Pumping more money into the economy in a country like Germany which is aging quickly will leave a very expensive bill for the next generation to pick up. So the chancellor is keeping a tight grip on the purse strings.

Does President Obama understand Europe well enough to consider these kinds of anxieties? "I think he is a real American," said Dijk. "And like most Americans, he doesn't know much about Europe."


German Chancellor Angela Merkel also has difficulty with the US president's plan. Pumping more money into the economy in a country like Germany which is aging quickly will leave a very expensive bill for the next generation to pick up. So the chancellor is keeping a tight grip on the purse strings.

Does President Obama understand Europe well enough to consider these kinds of anxieties? "I think he is a real American," said Dijk. "And like most Americans, he doesn't know much about Europe."

 AFP PHOTO/ STRINGER

 Prague : US President Barack Obama delivers a speech at Hradcany Square near Prague Castle in Prague on 5 April 2009, during the second day of his official visit here.


A pair of socks

Even before he was elected there were suspicions that Europe could be the weakest link in the Obama machine. He knows much more about Asia, where he partly grew up, and Africa, where his father comes from.

President Obama says he knows Europe from his travels in the past but remains vague about the details. And when he became chairperson of the powerful European committee in the Senate in 2007, meetings seldom convened as everyone was too busy.

During British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's recent visit to the White House, the prime minister could have been forgiven for feeling a bit snubbed. President Obama was too tired to receive Prime Minister Brown with the usual etiquette. And as a welcome gift, he gave the British prime minister a DVD box of American thrillers like Psycho.

"Just about as exciting as a pair of socks," the British press complained. Although it was milder in its criticism when the president gave Queen Elizabeth II a shiny new iPod, and First Lady Michelle dared to put her arm around the monarch's shoulders.

Strong ideas

It's true that Obama isn't as knowledgeable about Europe as former President Bill Clinton, says Karen Donfried from the German Marshall Fund, an American organisation which promotes transatlantic relations.

"It's true that he's not had experience of living in Europe the way Bill Clinton did as a Rhodes scholar,” she said. “But I think it's highly significant that his first overseas trip (was) to Europe. And I think it's interesting that it's the Big Three -- the United Kingdom, France and Germany -- followed by a visit to a smaller EU-member state, the Czech Republic and ending his trip in Turkey. It is also interesting, that he is including Turkey on a European trip."

It shows that he does have strong ideas about Europe.
AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR

 Prague : US President Barack Obama with his wife Michelle Obama greet the crowd before his speech at Hradcansky square in Prague on 5 April 2009 . Obama visited Prague to attend a summit with European Union leaders and to make a keynote speech on nuclear proliferation.

Newspaper headlines

Donfried thinks the US and European approach do go together. And what  Obama told an audience of about 200,000 ecstatic Europeans in Berlin last year is still the basis for his policy.

"He was clear in that speech that while he would be pursuing policies that are popular in Europe -- such as closing Guantanamo, or supporting federal policy in the US on fighting climate change -- he would also be looking to the Europeans to do more, for example, in Afghanistan. He wants to engage the allies but he also wants to have some concrete deliverables at the end of the trip."

He does not need to find a solution for all the world's problems, says Donfried. As long as he can show that there is consensus on how to proceed. Whether he manages that will depend more on the newspaper headlines than the approval of Merkel or Topolanek.


Interview with Karen Donfried, click here.
Perro de Jong/Radio Netherlands

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