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The world looks to Obama - Part III

By Shada Islam - posted Thursday, 13 November 2008

European Union leaders have been effusive in their praise for US President-elect Barack Obama, commending him as an agent for "change and openness" who could revitalise flagging transatlantic relations and forge a partnership of equals with Europe to decisively tackle global crises. Under the euphoria, though, lurk many concerns about what will be asked of Europe both in dealing with foreign challenges and their own racial problems.

Across a continent where most politicians fail to enthral, European citizens are inspired by Obama's youth, personality and - while not yet prepared to vote for a non-white politician themselves - by his personal history and mixed racial background.

After eight years of hand-wringing over an American president addicted to hard power and unilateral action, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner welcomed the election of "a man committed to dialogue between peoples and communities and co-operation among nations." European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he looked forward to working with Obama to broker "a new deal for a new world".


So far, so hopeful. Europeans want urgent EU-US action to overhaul the international financial system, including convening a conference to redesign the Bretton Woods post war global financial architecture. EU proposals for such review will dominate a November 15th meeting of the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies in Washington.

Kouchner and Barroso also called on Obama to take up the cause of "effective multilateralism", including tougher efforts to combat climate change, clinch a long-elusive Doha trade liberalisation deal and toughen global nuclear non-proliferation rules. On foreign policy, EU foreign ministers say the US leader must give priority attention to the Middle East conflict and defuse strained relations with Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia. In all these areas, "we must work together and not in opposition," said EU ministers.

Europeans should be careful what they wish for. While many fret that Obama may find it difficult to fulfil EU expectations, dealing with a new Europe-friendly US president is also likely to pose challenges to European governments.

To be given serious hearing by the US administration, the often-bickering 27-nation EU must get its own act together.

That's not going to be easy. True, the EU has been unusually effective in recent months, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as current EU chairman, successfully easing Russia-Georgian tensions in August and crafting a bold financial rescue plan for imperiled European banks.

But France will cede EU leadership to the Czech Republic next January, prompting fears that the former communist nation which only joined the EU in 2005 - whose president Vaclav Klaus is a renowned Eurosceptic - will be weaker and less effective in chairing the bloc.


In addition, plans for implementation of the EU reform treaty - with provisions for appointing a permanent EU president and first-ever foreign minister - remain on ice following rejection earlier this year by Irish voters. As such, there will be an unfortunate mismatch between a gutsy US administration taking charge in Washington and a rudderless EU, which as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once complained, still lacks a phone number that allies can dial in times of crises.

Switching from passive - albeit critical - bystander to responsible transatlantic partner requires a massive turnaround in EU thinking. Having spent the last eight years bashing the US over its tough handling of Iran, messy military policies in Iraq and changing goals in Afghanistan, the EU must define its own strategies and ambitions.

As such, the question is not whether Obama will shatter EU hopes but whether Europe can rise to the occasion, commented Spanish daily El Pais: "Europeans ... have a tendency to project their desires and frustrations on to the US, so that EU foreign policy is often a commentary approving or condemning Washington." EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana agrees: "If Europe wants to be heard, it has to offer more than just advice."

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - - (c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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About the Author

Shada Islam is a senior program executive at the European Policy Centre. She writes in a personal capacity.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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