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Obama and Tusk: A meeting of two presidents

US President Barack Obama has welcomed Donald Tusk, the EU Council president, to the White House. The two didn't meet on equal footing - and with the EU's large population and economic might, the question is, why not?

The White House has a reputation of caring little for the European Union. Individual European states may be important to Washington, but the US has always been wary of the EU as an institution. And this is especially true for President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of the Pacific region for the United States. The difficult negotiations between the US and EU on their free trade and investment agreement, TTIP, are probably confirming Obama's doubts about the EU.

Across the Atlantic, it can seem like unrequited love. Whenever the Europeans sought a meeting with Obama, he either rebuffed them completely or allowed top EU leaders only a very brief meeting at the sidelines of a summit that was taking place anyway, such as NATO or the G7, which caused a big stir each time.

Dialing the right number

By receiving Donald Tusk, Barack Obama, the most important leader in the world, has met another president who represents a community of states that is economically more powerful and significantly more populous than the US. But hardly anyone knows who Tusk is; even many Europeans have no idea.

The matter isn't helped by the fact that the EU has three presidents; alongside the President of the Council, who represents the member states, there are the Commission President and the President of the Parliament. The EU's Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 was accepted by all three then-presidents, which many found quite confusing.

Merkel, Poroshenko and Putin. Photo: Bundesregierung/Bergmann/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Angela Merkel has set the tone for the EU's policy toward Ukraine and Russia

"Who do I call if I want to call Europe?," former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once asked. Is that Tusk's number now?

Janis Emmanouilidis, who works for the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank, said, "It depends on what you need to talk about. For TTIP, it would be the number of the Commission President and other commissioners, because they have the negotiating authority."

But if, for example, the topic is Ukraine and the relationship with Russia, the President of the Council would be the first choice - in other words, Tusk. But, Emmanouilidis said, "The first number that many would call is the Chancellery in Berlin."

Obama's video conference

In fact, in recent years the importance of some key member states in the EU power structure has grown in relation to European institutions, and especially Germany, Emmanouilidis said.

"Nothing gets past Berlin, regardless of whether it's in the economic or political sphere."

And while the White House's warm words for Tusk haven't changed this, he said, Tusk's visit underscores the importance of cooperation between the EU and the US. The transatlantic video conference last week about Russia and Ukraine could be a further sign of the EU's involvement. In it, Obama consulted with the leaders of the most important EU states - Germany, France, Britain and Italy - but also with Tusk.

Europe as a consensus case

Unlike his predecessor, the quiet, unassuming Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, who hardly even voiced his own opinion in public, Poland's Tusk clearly feels comfortable on the international stage.

Flags of EU nations in front of National Library, Riga, Latvia Photo: Bernd Riegert, DW

Finding a consensus among 28 members is not easy

"Tusk comes across differently than Van Rompuy. He was prime minister of an important country that plays a central role, especially in Eastern Europe," Emmanouilidis said.

Tusk's Polish origin also influences his attitude to Russia. Poles and Balts see a Russian threat from painful personal experience more clearly than do the Germans or the French. If Tusk is able to get this across in Washington, the doors will open to him because the Americans also consider a path of endless diplomacy and consideration towards Russia to be dangerous.

Tusk recently warned the European Parliament: " One of the most important goals for President Putin today is to divide Europe."

But at what cost European unity? "Unity to do nothing is not for me," an exasperated Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said at the weekend. That's much the same as what John Boehner, the speaker of the US House of Representatives and a group of congressmen, both Democratic and Republican, wrote last Thursday in a letter to President Obama. American foreign policy, they said, would be "held hostage by the lowest common denominator of European consensus."

Friends in unexpected places

But Tusk, as representative of this disparate cluster of 28 EU states with different views and interests, can also expect understanding. "We stressed with our European allies and partners the importance of unity," US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said a few days ago. "That's certainly something we feel very strongly about."

But the disagreements over TTIP and worries about the United States pivoting away from Europe are tempered by a remark made by another employee of the US Department of State: The Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, called for a transatlantic renaissance. This is the same Victoria Nuland who a year ago let slip the sentence "F--- the EU!" in a wiretapped phone conversation with the US ambassador to Ukraine. The EU thus sometimes finds its advocates in Washington in unexpected places.