Page last updated at 18:11 GMT, Thursday, 13 November 2008

EU eager to work with Obama

By William Horsley
Writer on European affairs

Europe has fallen in love with America again because of Barack Obama.

Barak Obama victory sign in Chicago, 12 Nov 08
The Obama victory has raised expectations among Europeans

European leaders who celebrated his election victory are now signalling that they want an end to the estrangement between the two parts of the Western alliance during the Bush years.

Europe's euphoria was clear from the soaring rhetoric of the welcomes given to the US president-elect.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy said the world was "spellbound" by Barack Obama's brilliance in the campaign. He promised that ties between Europe and America would be re-energised.

And the Europeans have bold ideas about how to do that. They want "a partnership of equals", to resolve the urgent challenges, like the world financial crisis and bringing peace to the Middle East.

That was the message of a letter to the next US president agreed by all 27 European foreign ministers when they met one day before the US election.

The European Commissioner for External Affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, called for a "more balanced relationship" between Europe and the US.

That demand reflects a new reality: America's loss of prestige has left a vacuum that has been partly filled by Europe.

EU 'soft power'

When Russian tanks poured into Georgia and its two breakaway regions in the August war it was France's President Sarkozy, acting in Europe's name as holder of the EU presidency, who took centre stage in securing a ceasefire.

EU observers near Gori in Georgia, 4 Oct 08
EU observers are monitoring the fragile Georgia-Russia truce

Europe has taken a lead, too, in efforts to stabilise Bosnia and Kosovo, and to contain the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In each case America would probably have been the first port of call in the past for mediation and security.

Barack Obama has fuelled European hopes. Among his first pledges after his election win was one to "rebuild" alliances. Earlier he had already answered some major European concerns, by promising to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and play a leading part in combating climate change.

So this weekend's meeting of the world's 20 major trading countries in Washington is a focus for high European hopes - even if Mr Obama himself will not be there and the chances of a quick fix to the world's system of financial rules appear slim.

Across the Atlantic both sides are committed to rebuilding the fractured alliance, frayed close to breaking-point by sharp differences over Iraq and complaints about US "unilateralism".

Daunting challenges

But the revived EU-US romance is taking place amid the perilous currents of global changes that could blow the hoped-for partnership off course: the worst financial crash since the 1930s; the shift of global economic power from West to East; and acute challenges to Western security, both from Russia and from an Iranian leadership suspected of trying to arm itself with nuclear weapons.

America facing a painful recession may be in no mood to lift the protection it gives its farmers or industries

And lurking beneath the expressions of goodwill and common purpose are old rivalries, and differing views across the Atlantic about the proper remedies for the dangers being faced.

The first test will be Saturday's G20 summit. The Europeans are taking their prescriptions for a global economic rescue plan, including new rules on banking supervision, new funds for the IMF to bail out weak economies, and another summit in 100 days.

But can the West call the shots? China and other creditor nations hold the key to success, and are sure to demand a bigger say as the price for their co-operation.

Residual EU-US tensions

EU-US differences could also wreck a grand new design for the world's financial system. French calls for global "economic governance" - meaning more overt state controls - are anathema to the US and some other European countries.

And warnings like that of Germany's Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, that the US is losing its status as the global financial superpower, are not likely to be welcomed even in President Obama's America.

On the touchy matter of the faltering Doha Round of World Trade negotiations, too, the Europeans are pressing the US to be more generous to developing states as a key to a global settlement. But America facing a painful recession may be in no mood to lift the protection it gives its farmers or industries.

So the future points to two large snares in the way of the hoped-for reconciliation of the Western allies.

First, the US under President Obama still stands ready to use hard power to confront what it sees as unacceptable global threats, while Europe is more cautious.

Barack Obama himself declared "to those who would tear down this world - we will defeat you".

The signs are that America will take a tougher stand on Nato expansion, and responding to Russia's redrawing of Europe's borders in Georgia, and stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

It is far from clear how far Europe, dependent on Russian energy and much closer to Iran, will follow. And public opinion in Europe has hardened against the Nato-led combat operations in Afghanistan that Barack Obama says must be stepped up.

Second, Europe is internally divided over some critical questions - like whether or not to play host to the US missile defence system in the face of Russia's latest threat to deploy new missiles within Europe, in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

They are unsure, too, if all EU member states will accept the stalled Lisbon Treaty, a blueprint for EU institutional reform, which some believe could turn the 27-nation bloc into a global power to match America.

The EU-US honeymoon has started, and the talk from both sides is of lasting admiration and togetherness. But achieving that looks as hard now as it ever was.

William Horsley is media freedom representative for the Association of European Journalists.

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