Europe waits, hoping to see US goodwill turn into policy

7th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's promise this week to relaunch transatlantic ties was warmly welcomed but Europe is now waiting to see whether the pledge will translate into policy.

BRUSSELS - "President (Barack) Obama and I intend to energise the transatlantic relationship and to promote a strong European Union and, more fundamentally, a strong Europe," Clinton said after talks with senior EU officials in Brussels.

"The lesson we have drawn is clear: We derive strength from each other. A strong Europe is a strong partner for the United States, and the Obama administration intends for the United States to be a strong partner for Europe," she said, ending a visit to meet NATO and EU "friends and allies".

Over three days in Brussels, Clinton did her utmost to assure NATO and EU nations of US willingness to close ranks again. It is a message US Vice President Joe Biden is likely to repeat when he arrives here Monday evening.

She even went as far as to debate young political activists at the European Parliament, where no top US official has set foot since former president Ronald Reagan in 1985.

On issues like Iran's nuclear programme, rebuilding strife-torn Afghanistan, global warming or the economic crisis, her message was one the Europeans had been hoping to hear.

It marked a break with the previous administration of president George W. Bush, whose war on Iraq sparked tensions and even divided the European Union.

Europe has never hidden its enthusiasm for Obama and had been waiting since his arrival in office some six weeks ago for such a message to be delivered.

The EU waited in vain for some sign in the new president's inaugural address, and nations made no complaint when Clinton chose to make Asia her first foreign port of call.

A number of ministers were welcomed in Washington but only British Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- and even he just recently -- was allowed the honour of visiting the White House.

"Europeans had been a little worried," said Daniel Korski, of the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Obama focused on the economy and Clinton went to Asia. There was a feeling of: 'Hang on, where do we fit in?'".

Clinton's visit to Brussels, he said, succeeded in sweeping away those doubts. She managed to show that the transatlantic partnership "remains a more cohesive alliance than any other" and "the US is aware of that", he said.

But Korski noted that the goodwill "hasn't actually fleshed out. It's not concrete politics yet".

As the US administration tries to gain purchase, it is being held back by a number of problems around the globe.

So, even though senior EU officials will soon head to Washington enthusiastic to discuss ways to combat climate change, the economic crisis and its costs will weigh heavily on ambitions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

And while the Europeans strive to step up financial oversight, the American downturn is so strong that "Obama has primarily focused on how to save the United States", Korski said.

To such a point that it is unclear whether Obama "is ready now to contemplate some of the international policy options that European leaders think are necessary", he said.

Antonio Missiroli, analyst at the European Policy Centre, was more positive.

He said that given the number of thorny international issues -- like relations with Russia and Iran, the insurgency in Afghanistan -- "there is a huge change in style and substance" from the United States.

But he said Europe must remain "realistic" given the rapprochement comes at a time of European weakness, with the crisis creating divisions, the European Commission ending its mandate and the Czech EU presidency lacking experience.

Catherine Triomphe / AFP / Expatica

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