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Lightning-fast US-EU summit in Lisbon aims to revive ties

US President Barack Obama will meet briefly with EU leaders on Saturday in a meeting tagged on to NATO's summit in Lisbon. It's hoped the talks will calm European fears that the US has lost interest in the relationship.

US and EU flags

Not as close as they used to be, many Europeans fear

These days, it seems that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has more in common with Chinese president Hu Jintao than with the US president when it comes to American suggestions about capping exports. It's another sign of a trans-Atlantic relationship that has lost steam along the way.

But on both sides of the big pond, there are hopes that this weekend's speed summit – expected to last about two hours – can reinvigorate ties. The decision to meet on the tail end of the NATO summit came after Washington said Obama would not be attending a May summit in Madrid.

That led to fears that the US has turned its gaze elsewhere, particularly toward Asia, and is no longer all that interested in its long-term allies in Europe.

Obama and Merkel

Obama and Merkel have not seen eye to eye lately on several issues

"The trans-Atlantic relationship is not living up to its potential. I think we should do much more together," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in July.

That has been a cause for criticism, especially in conservative circles in Washington.

"President Obama really doesn't seem to have that link," said Sally McNamara from the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He seems to look out at the world and if you're ranking them, he would probably rank the Pacific number 1, the Middle East number 2 and Europe really comes in a distant third."

Still close

But the US government insists that Europe is still high on its priority list, saying that both sides of the Atlantic are on the same page on critical matters such as Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East in general.

"When you look at the agenda we face today, I think there really is a remarkable degree of allied unity," said Phil Gordon, deputy press spokesperson for the US State Department, adding that America's interest in Asia and the Middle East does not have to put a strain on ties between Europe and the US.

EU Commission President Barroso

EU Commission President Barroso has expressed frustration with the state of trans-Atlantic ties

In Lisbon, Obama will meet with both of the EU's top officials – Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and Barroso.

The leaders are expected to focus on economic cooperation, including the current financial crisis in Ireland, security issues and cooperation on other global issues, such as international development.

But there are policy divides that are not likely to be bridged in a two-hour summit. European governments have been critical of Washington's decision to pump $600 billion (437 billion euros) into the US economy and Europe's austerity plans stand in sharp relief to Obama's philosophy of economic recovery through increased government spending.

Trade issues are a concern, as is the approach to climate change in the lead up to international climate talks in Cancun.

Economy and security

But economic ties between the US and Europe remain strong. According to the White House office on European cooperation, four trillion dollars flow between the United States and Europe in trade and investment every year and approximately one in ten US jobs are created every year from the trans-Atlantic economic relationship

"So it is central to all of us," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, the office's director.

It is hoped that Lisbon can breathe new life into the Trans-Atlantic Economic Council, or TEC, which was set up in 2007 to direct economic co-operation between the two economies.

On the security front, the recent case of the parcel bombs from Yemen en route to the United States, which were discovered in the UK, as well as the recently stepped-up terror warnings in Germany show how important trans-Atlantic relations are in an era of global terrorism.

Obama with Chinese students

Some say the US seems more interested in Asia than its European allies

While the EU will be trying to read the tea leaves regarding US attitudes, the Americans will be sizing up Europe, and Germany in particular. Washington is eager to see if Germany adopts a European policy line or decides to go out on its own in some areas, especially when it comes to finance.

"I think it's important for the Europeans to tell the United States that this is not the case and that Germany remains very much a committed European country," said Steven Szabo from the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.

The important thing, he says, is that the meeting is actually taking place. The US is aware of European accusations of waning interest. "It's an easy, two-hour symbolic move for the administration to say 'we still care,'" he said.

He added the Europeans also need to communicate that they are behind the overall direction of American foreign policy, especially after the setbacks the administration suffered in the recent mid-term elections, which put the US House of Representatives in Republican hands.

"The Europeans don't want to see a reversal to a more conservative, Bush-type foreign policy," he said.

Author: Christina Bergmann (jam)
Editor: Michael Knigge

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