Monday

21st Jan 2019

EUobserved

On being 'Obama-ed'

  • Barroso and Van Rompuy (r) waiting for Obama's arrival. He'll be back in Brussels soon enough (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Well, he finally made it to the EU capital. There was much anticipation. And quite considerable upheaval. US president Barack Obama does not travel lightly: almost 900 people accompanied him. It was pageantry of a ridiculous order.

The EU area shut down. 1,500 Belgian police and 200 US security officials kept an eye. There were several helicopters. Layers of security perimeters. And no overground public transport. The upside: the multi-laned motorway close to the European Parliament was delightfully empty. The downside: you had to walk for miles if you found yourself on one side and wanted to get to the other.

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And all this so Obama could finally see "you guys [Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso] on your own turf" as he put it. Not that he had been lying awake at night fretting about it. But Europeans had been miffed that he had not yet graced EU buildings with his presence despite being in the job since 2009.

In 2010 Obama managed to skip out of an EU-US summit in Spain, citing a lack of things to talk about. He made up for it the following year by hosting the "guys" over in Washington. And, as the US president noted pointedly on Wednesday, he has seen the duo in Prague, London, Lisbon, the White House, Northern Ireland and (the previous day) in The Hague.

No matter. These events are as much about shaking hands as anything else. (And what a handshake it was too.)

It certainly wasn't about substance. The meeting – it remains a humungous stretch of the English language to call it a summit – ran for about 70 minutes.

Nevertheless Van Rompuy indicated afterwards that virtually no geopolitical stone had been left unturned. Indeed, they discussed Ukraine, Syria, Iran and the Central African Republic. The economy, climate change and the nascent EU-US trade agreement got a mention too.

They even touched on that awkward topic of the US spying on EU citizens and their leaders. Van Rompuy came up with the magnificent euphemism of "data flows".

Barroso, who looked outright delighted to have Obama within EU walls, even if they weren’t his own EU walls, said Europeans were the US’ "best friends" and that the meeting sent an "important signal".

Obama replied in kind. "Europe is America's closest partner."

A measly two questions were allowed from the press. But they enabled Obama to say EU states need to buck up and spend more on defence; Russia stands alone; Ukraine is not getting into Nato; the EU should hurry up and wean itself off Russian energy and the trade agreement – which many people are worried about – was, in fact, nothing to worry about.

It was a low-key affair. The Justus Lipsius building appeared to have depleted even Obama's oratory skills.

Meanwhile, as the conference wound down another event was cranking into gear. The Bozar centre was getting ready to receive its illustrious guest. The shutdown of the EU quarter extended to further downtown. And to politics in Brussels generally. The Belgian PM, the Nato leader, the European Commission President, EU foreign policy chief, EU commissioners, EP parliament political leaders, ambassadors, representatives and countless other officials flocked to hear him speak.

It was a long wait until he finally made it. He spoke about the importance of Europe. About not being complacent about what has been achieved. The "contest of ideas continues". It was a good reminder. And better said from someone from outside the EU. (Certainly there are few leaders in the EU saying such things).

It lacked fire though. Was delivered without passion. Perhaps he was weighed down by the things left unsaid.

And then he was gone. Off to Rome for an audience with the Pope. But, ironically enough for someone who has taken so long to get to the EU capital, he'll be back again in June.

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