European officials are anxious about whether Washington still views them as strong players on the world stage. To strengthen ties they have to further unify EU foreign policy and focus on the issues, analysts say.
The failure to focus on substance has weakened the EU's standing
When US President Barack Obama announced early in Februray that he would not attend an EU-US summit designed to launch the new European leadership, pundits were quick to interpret this as a sure sign of Europe being downgraded on the world stage. Although Washington officials insisted that Obama's cancellation was due to an overloaded domestic agenda, Europeans could not shake off the feeling that Obama is giving them the cold shoulder.
Now European nations will have to contend with an Obama administration basking in the glow of a number of recent successful policy achievements starting with health care reform and ending with the signing of the arms reduction treaty with Russia this week. Obama certainly wants European countries on board at the Washington disarmament conference next week in his quest for a nuclear-free world, however he knows he can bargain from a position of strength.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to attend the nuclear security summit and aside from Afghanistan and Iran, Obama has made progress on nuclear security a top priority on his foreign policy agenda. Therefore analysts believe that Merkel's presence at the summit will be very much appreciated in Washington.
However, the problematic question will be how Germany's desire to have US tactical nuclear weapons removed from its soil can be reconciled with the American view of the weapons as an important security asset.
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So can Europe present a united front in Washington? The EU-US summit planned for April was supposed to be the first since the Lisbon treaty came into force in December 2009 which created the posts of EU president and High Representative for Foreign Affairs.
Washington: Lisbon a missed opportunity
Analysts say that there is a strong impression in Washington that the Europeans have wasted the chance offered by Lisbon to streamline their diplomacy and foreign-policy structures.
"There is a real sense that the US may have to show some tough love and tell its European counterparts very bluntly that it wants to work with a more unified Europe and that its disappointed by the way things have been going over the last few months," New York based Richard Gowan, Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.
Instead of one there are now at least four voices speaking for Europe: the new permanent EU president, the still persisting six-month rotating presidency, the High Representative, and the president of the European Commission. The problem, once raised by Henry Kissinger, of who to call when you want to talk to Europe, has not exactly been solved by the Lisbon treaty.
US focus on emerging powers
A growing dialogue: Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao
Another factor contributing to the Europeans' nervousness is Obama's focus on reaching out to emerging powers like Brazil, India and above all China.
"The Obama government has set out to form a closer political and economic relationship with China, raising fears in Europe that such a G-2 could further reduce Europe's influence in the world," the Center for European Reform said in a recent study.
Obama's attempt to adapt international political structures to meet the rise of the new superpowers is also encapsulated in his administration's advocacy for the G20 in which China and India are full members.
"Obama's administration has decided to replace the G8 with the G20 as the premier forum of economic discussion. It sees the G20 as an institution which brings new and established economic powers together. The Europeans feel rather downgraded by this prioritization," Gowan said.
On the other hand, Gowan points out that European countries themselves have invested a lot in attempting to improve their relationship with China. It should not come as a surprise that the US has a vital interest to do the same.
Some analysts say that the growing importance of China does not necessarily take away from the strength of the transatlantic partnership.
"You have to differentiate between who is becoming most important in terms of challenges and economic cooperation and who is your natural partner. The G2 already exists between the US and Europe if you look at investment, jobs creation, and trade. Almost two thirds of the world's economic activity still happens between the US and Europe," Jan-Friedrich Kallmorgen, former head of the Transatlantic Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.
So while there might be a growing dialogue between the US and China, it is still far away from the kind of transatlantic cooperation that everyone has become accustomed to in Europe.
Common foreign policy goals
Overall, the EU and the US share many foreign policy goals and there is a lot more consensus than there was in the Bush years. Both sides acknowledge that tackling climate change is a priority and that they need to make progress on international financial regulation. They also seem to be on the same page when it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions and the situation in Afghanistan.
While Obama is said to be disappointed about the small number of extra troops from Europe, his new approach to Afghanistan is much closer to European - and in particular German - priorities.
"The concept that civil measures like police training, legal education and business administration should increasingly play a role in Afghanistan has gained considerable ground in Washington," explains Kallmorgen.
Merkel in a strong position
"Merkel is the leader you have to do buisness with in Europe"
Although Germany has been a difficult partner on Afghanistan, analysts believe that German-US ties are still going strong. According to Gowan, German Chancellor Merkel may well be the most important European figure when it comes to transatlantic cooperation.
"Merkel still represents the leader that you have to do business with in Europe. Gordon Brown faces electoral defeat, neither Zapatero nor Berlusconi have really impressed the current administration, and Sarkozy is understood to be very critical of Obama in private," he explains.
On a personal level, you do not see the kind of public display of affection forced onto Merkel by former President George W. Bush. But on a working level, Gowan says she represents a stable partner for Obama who has just been reelected and will be around for quite some time.
It is with these bread and butter issues that Europeans will try to gain ground in relations with Washington. Many commentators believe that instead of quarrelling over who shakes Obama's hand first and sulking over a summit no-show, European leaders should offer concrete foreign policy agreements and deliver on issues like financial regulation and international security. Maybe if there is more beef on the menu next time the EU invites Obama over for dinner, he will gladly accept.
Author: Jan Bruck
Editor: Rob Mudge