WikiLeaks and the EU: Why was Obama summit scrapped?

One of the most high-profile dust-ups between the US and the European Union since President Barack Obama took office was a White House decision to skip out on a May summit with the EU that was to be held in Madrid during Spain’s turn at the bloc’s rotating presidency.

The decision was seen by many Europeans as a snub, and hurt feelings have persisted for months. The issue was raised anew just last month when Obama finally agreed to an EU summit, this time tacked onto a Nato gathering in Lisbon, with the US continuing to insist that the only reason the Spanish summit was scrapped was because of Obama’s already heavy European travel schedule.

But two cables made public as part of the WikiLeaks dump this week present a more complicated picture of the White House decision-making. They make clear that senior US officials believed that there simply was not enough substance to the agenda to make the meeting worthwhile.

The first cable details a February 1 meeting held between William Kennard, the US ambassador to the EU, and Spain’s then-EU representative, Carlos Bastarreche, in which the Spaniard pushes hard for an Obama visit, saying it would help thaw what “had become a strained bilateral relationship under President Bush” following Spain’s decision to pull out of Iraq.

But Kennard makes clear the US is wavering because of the lack of concrete issues to be decided on:

Ambassador Kennard assured Bastarreche the Summit was under consideration in Washington at present, but stressed the importance the Obama administration places on results. He said the White House understands the important symbolism of the Summit, but is very focused on the domestic agenda and overseas travel would have to lead to tangible outcomes.

Apparently unbeknownst to either man, the press had already learned of the snub and was publishing stories on the very day the meeting was held. The cable notes that Kennard tried to call Bastarreche later that evening to inform him of the White House decision, but only reached him the next morning.

The fallout is apparent in a second cable, this one written by the US embassy in Madrid just days later, which details two days of harried discussions between the US ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont, and a wide range of Spanish officials, including Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

The cable makes clear that Zapatero was paying a price for the snub, with US diplomats declaring that the Spanish prime minister “has taken a serious political blow at a time when he can ill afford it.” But the cable is also filled with American annoyance that Spain did not take seriously US admonishments that the summit had not been agreed to yet:

Regrettably, and despite being told repeatedly that no dates were agreed, the GOS [government of Spain] treated the summit as fait accompli when talking to the media…. Although Spanish leaders may voice their desire for a visit to senior USG [US government] officials, they should avoid making the same mistake twice of speaking publicly about a visit that has not been committed to.

The cable also makes clear the US’s public stance on the cancellation – that the decision “had everything to do with the President’s very busy agenda and nothing to do with the importance the US attaches to Europe and Spain” – was somewhat different than its private rationale: It reiterates that the US had made repeated “injunctions” that a summit “needed concrete and worthwhile deliverables” in order to be held.

In then end, however, the Madrid embassy concludes that “bilateral relations will survive intact,” an assertion that appears to have been supported by a conversation between Solomont and Zapatero:

Zapatero told the Ambassador he understands President Obama has a complicated agenda and that he travelled several times to Europe in the past year. Zapatero assured the Ambassador he understands the decision has nothing to do with US feelings towards Spain or Europe.