Barack Obama

During his inaugural address on Monday, US President Barack Obama committed himself to a European priority that was shoved to the background during his first term in office: Fighting climate change.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Those words were music to the ears of many in Brussels, who had assumed – wrongly, it turns out – that the White House was poised four years ago to join the EU’s campaign to forge an ambitious global climate treaty.

The irony of Obama’s climate pivot is that it was announced on the same day when the price of carbon in the EU’s emissions trading scheme fell to an all-time low, offering a distressing reminder about the disarray in a market that is the centrepiece of Europe’s climate policy. Read more

Obama shakes hands with Treasury chief Geithner after his State of the Union address.

The news overnight focused on President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address. For the Brussels crowd, the most interesting thing in the speech may have been what was not in the speech: Europe.

Despite the ongoing eurozone crisis, and the increasingly deep involvement of senior US officials like Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner in crisis management, Obama did not mention Europe’s economic problems once. In fact, his only reference to the continent at all was a line that military alliances in Europe (and Asia) were “as strong as ever”, and putting “Berlin” in a list of global capitals where governments are “eager to work with us”.

Obama’s Republican adversaries have not done much more than that in their frequent televised debates, despite growing concern in Washington that a crisis-induced collapse of Europe’s economy could have a severe impact on the US economy in the midst of this year’s presidential campaign. Read more

President Barack Obama’s decision not to travel to Spain in May for a US-European Union summit does not come as a great surprise to EU policymakers.  They knew weeks ago that he had gone cool on the idea.  Nonetheless, it will hurt.  It will be read as a signal from the White House that the president doesn’t think the meeting would be especially productive.  And that speaks volumes about how other powers, even allied countries such as the US, view the EU as a force on the global stage.

“An unsentimental President Obama has already lost patience with a Europe lacking coherence and purpose,” wrote Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro in a report last November for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.  “In a post-American world, the United States knows it needs effective partners.  If Europe cannot step up, the US will look for other privileged partners to do business with.” Read more

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. Read more