Summit-hungry Europeans flock to a bemused Washington

On Tuesday a numerically impressive delegation of Europeans will be in Washington for the first formal US-European Union summit since Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration last January.  Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden’s prime minister, will be there in his capacity as leader of the country that holds the EU’s rotating presidency.  So will Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister.  So will Javier Solana, the EU’s head of foreign policy.  So will Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external affairs commissioner.  So will José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president – and from what I hear, a few other bigwigs are going along for the ride as well.

This is quite a turnout.  It would be nice to think it reflects an exceptionally warm and constructive relationship between the Obama administration and its EU allies.  But as a timely new report by the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, the real picture is less rosy.  “To Americans, these summits are all too typical of the European love of process over substance, and a European compulsion for everyone to crowd into the room regardless of efficiency,” write the authors, Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro.

In 2001 President George W. Bush was so taken aback by his first experience of EU-style summitry that he halved the frequency of the US-European meetings to once a year.  Last April, however, the Europeans managed to entice Obama into visiting Prague for a session with all 27 EU heads of state and government.  “Administration sources are frank that Obama’s encounter… left him incredulous,” say Witney and Shapiro.

One sympathises.  Even Europeans know that their inability or reluctance to put a sensible limit on the number of people who represent them is a weakness.  How much worse it must be for a practical, results-oriented kind of guy like Obama.  He would surely like nothing better than a summit where the Europeans speak with one voice and don’t need a dozen limousines to get them to the White House.

But it’s a problem that shows no sign of going away.  Take the G20.  This increasingly important group, which brings together the world’s leading industrialised and developing countries, does not in fact have 20 faces around the table but 24, of which eight are European.  It’s much the same at the International Monetary Fund.  And when the EU started formal consultations on exchange rates and other issues with China’s leaders two years ago, they sent three people to Beijing – Jean-Claude Trichet, the European Central Bank president; Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister and the head of the 16-strong group of eurozone finance ministers; and Joaquín Almunia, the EU monetary affairs commissioner.  That might just have been acceptable, except that a separate European delegation was in Beijing at the same time for a EU-China summit, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was also flying around China doing his own thing.

Will the situation improve once the EU has its first full-time president, one of whose tasks will be to represent the EU in external relations?  Unlikely.  At times I have the impression that the regular bilateral summits with the US, China, Russia, India, Japan and so on don’t even mean a great deal to EU leaders.

I well remember a EU-South Africa summit held in Bordeaux in July 2008.  Sarkozy, who represented the EU because France held the bloc’s rotating presidency, hosted Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president.  But Sarkozy left the summit early because he had a more pressing engagement in Paris on the same day.  With whom?  Barack Obama… then a mere presidential candidate.