4th Dec 2022

European expectations peak as Obama takes office

With millions of Europeans set to watch the inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday evening (20 January), expectations for America's first black president and his message of "hope" and "change" could hardly be higher.

But Mr Obama's "honeymoon" with Europe will not last very long, pundits and MEPs predict, as divergences on Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and even Guantanamo are set to overshadow initial euphoria. Climate change is more likely to become a binding topic between Brussels and Washington, however.

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  • US insignia - Barack Obama has sparked enthusiasm across Europe as America's first black president (Photo: Wikipedia)

"Expectations for Obama are ludicrously high and I'm sure he realises this," British Conservative MEP Syed Kamall told EUobserver. "He will need to play to an American audience, so the honeymoon in Europe will end once the interests of the US and the EU do not coincide," he added.

Europeans were likely to be reluctant to back Mr Obama's calls for more troops and burden-sharing in Afghanistan, Mr Kamall said. The war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, following the attacks of 11 September, and has 21 EU member states participating, but with low public support due to its prolonged duration and casualties.

A similar view was expressed by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank.

"Europe will miss the opportunity to have co-leadership on several issues," he argued, citing Afghanistan, Iran and Russia as potential disagreements between Europe and the US.

"I'm a bit pessimistic about Europe's ability to rise to the challenge of being a useful partner to Mr Obama," he said.

"On Russia, the Europeans are not really able to produce a unified policy. In the case of Afghanistan, they are not prepared to send troops to the dangerous places. On Iran, they are not prepared to take tougher sanctions as part of the stick-and-carrot package by which Mr Obama would hope to persuade Iran to dismantle its nuclear programme," Mr Grant explained.

Even on Guantanamo - the legally-blurry prison Europe has been calling on Washington to close - Mr Obama might face difficulties, since only a few EU countries so far expressed their willingness to take former inmates, "making it much harder for the US to close it," Mr Grant argued.

Yet he agreed that climate change was "the one issue where the EU does lead in world affairs," offering the chance for Europe and America to design new global standards and set a good example for emerging powers such as China and India.

"There's no way to get China and India on board unless Europe and the US are taking credible measures themselves. That's going to be the start," he said.

The Obama presidency will also be an alarm call for internal EU politics, Danish socialist MEP and potential future European Commission head Poul Nyrop Rasmussen wrote in a comment for this website.

"There can be no more hiding behind George W. Bush as an excuse for failure. Europe has an opportunity with Barack Obama. But can a conservative-run European Union seize it?"

Eastern European hopes

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, the country currently chairing the EU presidency, expectations from the incoming US administration focus on the post-Soviet states.

"Together with the Obama administration, the new member states - although we are not so new anymore, since we joined five years ago - will work on relations with EU's Eastern neighbours, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova," Petr Greger, director of the Europlatform, a Prague-based think tank, told this website.

Support for these countries did not mean enlargement of NATO and the EU, but more co-operation with the eastern neighbours, he said. Yet he pointed out that Ukraine had a "much closer" relationship with the EU than, for instance, Belarus and that both Washington and Brussels should work on deepening the relationship.

From a Russian perspective, Bush-era support for potential NATO expansion to countries such as Ukraine and Georgia damaged trans-Atlantic relations, Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper chamber wrote in the Moscow Times.

"Moscow is concerned that the Obama administration will continue to support requests from Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. In a broader sense, there are disagreements between Russia and the United States on policies in the former Soviet republics and in Europe," he said.

The Russian politician quoted German foreign minister and "possible future chancellor" Frank-Walter Steinmeier as having written a letter to Mr Obama "suggesting that the United States consider President Dmitry Medvedev's proposal for a European security pact covering the territory stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok."

Mr Obama so far has not expressed any clear views on the idea of such a security pact, which was also supported by French President Nicolas Sarkozy while chairing the EU presidency last year.


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