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 revitalize 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 enthrall, 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 cooperation 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 postwar 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 liberalization 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 fulfill 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.”
For the moment, however, Europe can only offer advice. Obama is expected to delight many in Europe by changing US policy on climate change, nuclear disarmament and accepting a ban on torture. But he has yet to react to EU calls for total revamp of international financial institutions, including Sarkozy’s calls for stringent global regulations. In any case, the US president-elect has made clear that immediate focus will be on domestic economic reform rather than reshaping the global financial landscape.
EU policymakers expect strain on several foreign policy fronts, including Afghanistan. European governments are likely to ignore Obama’s demands that they assume greater responsibility by sending more troops to contain the growing insurgency in the country. This in turn could cast a dark shadow over Obama’s expected first visit to Europe next year to attend NATO’s 60th anniversary celebrations in Strasbourg. France will not deploy more soldiers in Afghanistan because the focus must be on transferring more power and responsibility to Afghan authorities, said Kouchner, adding: “I do not believe there will be a military solution in Afghanistan.” Germany similarly opposes raising troop levels or sending its soldiers into more dangerous southern Afghanistan.
Fearing further escalation of the conflict, Europeans are uneasy over Obama’s determination to carry out military strikes against Afghan insurgents sheltering inside Pakistan. And while the president-elect’s statements favoring negotiations rather than military action to resolve stalemate over Iran’s controversial nuclear program are more in line with EU-thinking, the conversation could get tougher if the US opts for tougher sanctions against Tehran.
After this summer’s crisis over Georgia when Washington took a more robust stance against Russia’s military action than the EU, Europeans want Washington and Brussels to stop sending contradictory signals to Moscow and forge a united front on dealing with a belligerent Russia. On the economic front, Europeans intend to work hard to ensure that Obama’s anti-free trade rhetoric during the electoral campaign is not translated into government policy.
Significantly, one positive fall-out of Obama’s election victory is increased scrutiny of how European governments treat their minority communities. While members of Europe’s Muslim and other minorities are slowly becoming more assertive and visible in business, politics and society, many continue to face an uphill struggle for recognition as full-fledged citizens. Given rigid political party structures, breaking into mainstream politics is specially difficult for minority representatives, says Sajjad Karim, conservative member of the European Parliament. “The European political system favors middle-class, middle-aged, white males.” French human rights minister Rama Yade, of Senegalese origin, told the magazine Le Figaro: “The French themselves are ready, but our political system would stop an Obama appearing. Not because he’s black, but because he comes from a background of recent immigration. Here, integration is much more difficult.” Echoing Yade, Trevor Phillips, head of a British equality watchdog group has said that while the British public “would rather like” a black leader, “institutional resistance” would block the path of an ethnic minority candidate. “The parties and unions and think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities, but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business.”
Obama’s election has not only given a much-needed boost to America’s tarnished global reputation but also injected Europe’s minorities with new sense of worth. It may take years before Europeans achieve anything close to what the US has accomplished and the euphoria of a new dawn of US-EU relations may fade fast. But the 2008 election could mark a turning point in both transatlantic ties and represent a defining moment for minorities in Europe. And that, says Karim, is a “tremendous achievement.”
Shada Islam is a senior program executive at the European Policy Centre.
[bron: Yale Global]
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