11th Dec 2019

Obama kicks off Europe trip with ancestral visit to Ireland

  • In anticipation of the Obama visit - a house in the Irish village of Moneygall (Photo: EventPhotography)

US president Barack Obama is kicking off a visit to Europe with a brief stopover in Ireland to discover his ancestral roots, a 24-hour visit that has the country - mired in economic problems - buzzing with excitement.

The focus of Obama's attentions, at least for the purposes of tracing his roots, will be the tiny midlands village of Moneygall in Co. Offaly, a place that most people in Ireland would have previously had difficulty in finding on the map. It is from here that Obama's great-great-great grandfather 160 years ago set off to America to make a better life for himself.

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The village houses have been spruced up with paint - an inspired marketing move by paint-maker Dulux - the pavements cleaned and flowers arranged.

The president, who will be accompanied by the First Lady Michelle Obama, is expected to have the obligatory pint of Guinness in the village pub which is decked top to bottom with Obama memorabilia, including a bust of the man himself standing on the counter.

For all the local excitement and the presence of the world media to boot, the village excursion is only expected to last about 45 minutes. Obama will then head back to Dublin where he will give a speech in the evening, set to be attended by thousands of people.

The event is being billed as a public celebration, with Irish citizens in recent times having little to be joyful about amid high unemployment and severe cuts to public services as the highly indebted country seeks to get itself out of its banking and economic crisis.

The trip to Ireland will be followed on Tuesday by a visit to Britain where he will meet Prime Minister David Cameron and address both houses of parliament.

Keenly looked for will be any references to Britain's 'special relationship' with the US. London often uses this as a reason for keeping its head turned more towards Washington than towards Brussels. In recent years, however, it has been questionable whether America's relations with the UK do have a special status.

On Thursday, Obama will head to Deauville in France for the G8 summit. There it is likely that leaders discuss who should head up the International Monetary Fund, after Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested on sexual assault charges last week. The EU is strongly pushing to have a European in the post, with the IMF involved in the bailout of several eurozone countries.

The US president will also meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

At the end of the week, he will head to Poland to discuss plans for a US missile defence shield in Europe, which will partly be hosted by the Poles.

Obama's trip to Europe is of huge symbolic importance, with Europeans often fretting that the cool-headed president prefers to focus his attentions on Asia rather than the Old Continent.

Obama's summitteering in Europe became a bone of contention last year after he abruptly cancelled an EU-US summit in May due to lack of substance on the agenda. The move prompted commentators to speculate that EU structures are less important than bilateral diplomacy for the White House.

A US summit with post-Communist EU countries in Prague last April excluding EU leaders was also seen as a snub by some.

In addition, despite the delight with which they welcomed Obama becoming US president in 2009, Europeans were subsequently disappointed that Washington did not move forward in areas such as tackling climate change, an issue close to the EU's heart.

Meanwhile, Washington is often frustrated by EU countries' unwillingness to commit more troops and money to Afghanistan.

The democracy uprisings in north Africa will form the backdrop to the Europe visit with the US notably letting France and the UK take the initiative on going to war in Libya, although American military strength was needed to carry out the mission.

Both sides will be keen to show that the momentum in Libya is not being lost amid a protracted conflict between rebels and forces loyal to Colonel Gadaffi.

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