Obama's Afterthought: Is the E.U. Getting Short Shrift?

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Virginia Mayo / AP

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a media conference at an E.U.-U.S. summit in Lisbon.

After the G20 summit in Seoul in mid-November, and the NATO gathering in Lisbon a few days after that, you might think Barack Obama would have had his full share of powwows with other top world leaders. Yet, on Saturday he had one more summit to sit through — and for Europe, it was a much-needed affirmation that the U.S. still cares.

But Obama's summit with the E.U.'s top two officials felt like an afterthought. It was tacked on after the two-day NATO meeting, and lasted just two hours. And it was a rescheduling of a meeting originally set to take place in Madrid in May that was scrapped after Obama apparently expressed concern that there was simply not enough substance on the agenda.

Whatever Obama's reasons for not wanting a summit earlier in the year, it was widely interpreted in the E.U. as a cruel snub by the President to an entity with a combined weight of 27 member states, a population of 500 million and a $15 trillion GDP. But European Commission President José Manuel Barroso insists he is not bothered by the hasty summit arrangements. "Issues of protocol and format are only important for people who don't know each other or who lack confidence. Between the U.S. and E.U., to be oversensitive is ridiculous," he told TIME in the run-up to the Saturday night summit in Lisbon. "The question is, Can we or can't we do more together?"

He and Obama sounded effusive after the summit. "America's relationship with our European allies and partners is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world," Obama said after the meeting, sentiments that were echoed by fellow attendee, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. "The United States is and continues to be our closest and most important partner," said Van Rompuy.

Both sides underlined the breadth of their talks and the depth of their relationship. They discussed their respective economic recovery plans, as well as currency wars, counter-terrorism, climate change, development aid, Iran, Middle East peace, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They pointed out that the U.S. and E.U. are each other's largest trade and investment partners, accounting for some $4 trillion in annual flows and generating around 1 in 10 jobs.

But many officials in Brussels and Washington fear that in the wake of the U.S. midterm elections, the newly emboldened Republicans in Congress may threaten transatlantic coordination on major issues such as financial regulation, climate change and trade. Meanwhile, in Europe there is the grim backdrop of a new euro-zone crisis — focused on Ireland — draining political and economic energy.

There are also notable differences between the two summit partners. Their economic recovery strategies diverge, with most E.U. nations launching austerity programs while Obama opts to stimulate economic expansion with more government spending. Both sides have adopted sweeping new rules on financial regulation but disagree over how these should be applied. Europe sees climate change as an existential issue, while the U.S. questions whether emission-cutting rules can realistically be agreed upon at a global level. And E.U. member states have proved themselves awkward allies when it comes to Obama's priorities, like sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Indeed, while Obama's election in 2008 suggested he might have four years to advance an agenda in line with European policies, the two sides have found a host of deep-rooted problems that are coming into sharper focus. Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, says these issues were hidden when George W. Bush was in the White House, with Europe able to blame any problems on its antipathy towards the then-President. "One of the major effects of the Obama presidency is that by taking the Bush Administration out of the equation, some uncomfortable truths have been exposed," says Volker.

And then there are stylistic differences. Washington complains that Europe is mired in its countless institutions, leaders, and processes, all of which take too much time and energy. U.S. officials say summits with the E.U. generate laundry lists of vague and wide-ranging commitments that rarely lead to practical results. Despite last year's Lisbon Treaty to streamline decision-making, the E.U. is still somewhat incoherent institutionally and fails to meet U.S. expectations for a more capable partner. "There seems to be a deficit of energy, innovation, and enthusiasm on both sides," says Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Does that mean Saturday's summit was a waste of time? Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says one of the reasons the relationship seems stale is precisely because it is so broad and deep: Europe and the U.S. share close historical and cultural ties and, more than that, common values that have endured generations. "There are no fundamental questions about their relationship, there is no urgency about repairing them," Dworkin says. Obama seemed to admit as much in his post-summit press conference. "This summit was not as exciting as other summits because we basically agree on everything," he said.

Obama still has star wattage in Europe: a September poll in 11 E.U. countries revealed his overall approval remains high at 78%. He flattered his hosts in Lisbon about the importance of the transatlantic relationship and its vital role in setting the global agenda. But such language will sound hollow if he and the E.U. fail to build on their common outlook and continue taking each other for granted.