Snub for EU as Barack Obama ducks out of summit

Guardian UK (Link) - Ewen MacAskill & Nicholas Watt  (February 3, 2010)

Europe failed the first test of new arrangements introduced by the Lisbon treaty yesterday when the US announced that Barack Obama would not attend a joint summit in May, partly out of �frustration in Washington over the confused management of the EU.

In what was seen as a snub to the EU, the White House said Obama would not travel to Madrid in the spring for the summit that is meant to symbolise the close co-operation between the US and Europe. Senior diplomats in Brussels said last night the cancellation was a big embarrassment for the EU, which had hoped to increase its standing on the world stage when it ended a decade of debate about its institutional architecture with the ratification of the Lisbon treaty in December.

Washington discovered that no fewer than three EU presidents would line up to shake Obama�s hand at the summit: Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European council; Jos� Manuel Barroso, the president of the European commission, and Jos� Luis Rodr�guez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister who holds the title of president in office during Spain�s six-month presidency of the EU.

One Brussels diplomat said: �The US simply don�t know who they�re meant to be dealing with. The US is mightily pissed off. They thought the Lisbon treaty was meant to solve all these problems.�

PJ Crowley, the US assistant secretary of state, voiced the uncertainty in Washington over who runs the EU. �Because of the changes involving the establishment of a EU council president and a European commission president on top of the rotating EU presidency, I think it�s taking some time to work through exactly how various high-level meetings will happen.�

There was also criticism in Brussels last night of Zapatero who is fighting a battle for supremacy with Van Rompuy. The Lisbon treaty created Van Rompuy�s post of president of the European council as part of a drive to ensure continuity in the EU, but then kept the six-month rotating presidency, currently held by Zapatero.

One senior Brussels diplomatic source said Zapatero, who fears he is being marginalised after Van Rompuy called a special summit of EU leaders next week, pushed for the Obama meeting to strengthen his position. �The Spanish have screwed up,� the diplomatic source said. �Zapatero pushed the summit too far. Everyone knows Obama needs to focus on the domestic agenda.�

There were still hopes last night the summit would go ahead in Brussels. Under the Lisbon treaty all so called �third country summits� are meant to be held in Brussels when they are being hosted by the EU.

The decision by Obama to skip the Madrid summit is a sign that the promise of a more international approach from the US is being overtaken by pressing domestic concerns.

Obama wants to be seen to be spending more time in the US dealing with domestic issues particularly after the Democrats� surprise defeat in Massachusetts last month. There were a series of diplomatic exchanges overnight yesterday after officials in Europe read about the decision on media websites.

A White House national security spokesman, Mike Hammer, played down talk of a snub. �The president is committed to a strong US-EU partnership, and with Europe in general. There were no plans for the president to travel to Spain for a summit this spring.�

But the Obama administration believes the summits are light on substance. Obama was reported to be �fairly unimpressed� with the EU-US summit in Prague last April when all 27 leaders lined up to shake his hand. It was hosted by Mirek Topolanek, the former Czech prime minister, shortly after he lost a no confidence vote in parliament.

Obama was also irritated when three EU leaders pitched up in Washington for the next summit in November. He asked Joe Biden, the US vice-president, to take on some of his duties after learning that the main EU representative would be Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, who is seen as a marginal figure because his country has a population of just over 9 million.

Zapatero, who is scheduled to visit Washington this week, was described as angry and embarrassed. Jos� Antonio Alonso, the governing Socialist party�s spokesman in the Spanish parliament and close ally of Zapatero, said: �I think the US administration is and must be aware of what Europe is.�