Ukraine crisis expected to dominate EU-US summit
US leader Barack Obama has come to the EU capital for the first time since he took office in 2009.
The good-will visit revolves around four events: a morning ceremony at a US military cemetery on the outskirts of Brussels to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WW1; a lunch with top EU officials; a visit to Nato headquarters; and a town-hall-type speech for 2,000 students and young people at Bozar, an arts centre.
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He landed late on Tuesday (25 March), to be greeted by the Belgian king and the Belgian PM, and takes off again late on Wednesday to Rome.
His trip involves an unprecedented level of security, even by Brussels' standards of almost monthly summits of EU leaders.
The US delegation has 700 officials and 200 security guards. He will move around in his Marine One helicopter accompanied by a dozen military helicopters and in an armoured cadillac known as The Beast in a convoy of 40 vehicles.
Belgian police has deployed almost 1,500 officers to keep him safe, including snipers around The Hotel, where he slept on Tuesday. It has closed down parts of the city to traffic and cut public transport. Belgium also closed down parts of its airspace for his flights.
The cost of the operation is unclear: Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur first told press it is €10 million. Then he said it is €500,000.
The EU-US summit is supposed to take place each year. But it last took place in Washington in 2011, prompting anxiety in EU circles the US leader thinks EU institutions are less important than Berlin, London, or Paris.
Unlike many EU summits, it will not involve the signature of any agreements or treaties, but will produce a “joint statement.”
The show of solidarity comes at a testing time in trans-Atlantic relations.
Obama’s visit to the WWI site stands amid a major security crisis after Russia invaded Ukraine last month, in events compared by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to antecedents of the First World War, and by other European leaders to the preludes of World War II.
Both the EU and US have imposed sanctions on Moscow. But the US sanctions are tougher, with US diplomats privately voicing dismay on the EU’s handling of the situation.
Obama’s visit also comes amid US complaints that Europe is not spending enough on its own defence and EU complaints the US is spying on its allies.
The two sides recently launched talks on a free-trade treaty which the EU says can boost its economy by €119 billion a year. The treaty also has a strategic dimension - to cement the trans-Atlantic allies’ status as the world’s most powerful economic bloc and to counter China.
But the US snooping scandal has seen some MEPs, who will, one day, have to ratify the treaty, call for trade talks to be frozen.
The European Commission said on the eve of Obama’s visit he should give EU citizens the right to “judicial redress” in America if their privacy has been violated in order to “restore trust and maintain the continuity of data flows between the EU and US."
Other items on the summit agenda include: asking the US to drop visa requirements for the five EU countries which still need travel permits; seeing how far the US is willing to match EU goals on cuts to CO2 emissions; and seeing to what extent the US is willing to open up its monopoly on internet governance.
For his part, Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe, a think tank in Brussels, said they are also likely to talk about exports of cheap US shale gas to Europe to lower dependence on Russia.
“Some Europeans don’t want ‘dirty American energy’ coming from the shale revolution and some Americans say that we shouldn’t cross-subsidise European [energy] complacency,” he noted.
But he added: “Ukraine overshadows everything … this show of trans-Atlantic unity, I think that will dominate everything.”
Techau said EU grumbles on details of the free trade talks and on US espionage have shrunk due to the confrontation with Russia: “It’s very, very interesting to see how in times of real crisis, existential crisis, the trans-Atlantic relationship boils down to its essence … a security relationship."
“Europeans cannot live without the American protective umbrella, extended deterrents, and the Americans cannot let their geostrategic counterpart in Europe basically to fall into disarray.”