international analysis and commentary

Europe: in the news for the wrong reasons

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When the White House announced the President’s trip to Europe, a broad range of issues were thought to be on the agenda. Most notably there was the discussion on nuclear safety to be held at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, a follow up to President Obama’s own 2010 initiative. Then there were issues of inequality and poverty, which the President discussed at his final stop, during a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. And at another stopover in Brussels, in between the Summit and the Papal visit, the American President met with the European Union’s leadership to discuss a whole range of issues. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a key transatlantic project, would likely have taken center stage, together with the ongoing crisis in Syria and negotiations with Iran. But in the end and due to recent developments, much media attention fell on one issue: the situation in Ukraine and the West’s relationship with Russia.

In his speech at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, the major public address of his stay in Europe, President Obama spoke almost exclusively about the developments in Crimea and – as the President called it – “Russia’s violation of international law”. Drawing on the lessons of the 20th century, the President condemned Russia’s leadership as “challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident, that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.”

Publically American and European leaders presented a united position around these lines. At the same time and below the surface, differences persist. European leaders remain concerned about America’s pivot to Asia and a subsequent turn away from Europe. In addition, Washington’s reaction to the annexation of Crimea is seen in many parts of Europe (and especially in the media and public) as taking an increasingly hard line, a prospect that causes nerves to fly high in some corners. The President’s qualification of Russia as a “regional power”, accordingly, was condemned by some, for example in Germany, as an intentional and unnecessary humiliation of the Russian side.

But Europeans need to remember that even while the President may be traveling in Europe, a good deal of public messaging continues to be directed towards a domestic audience. And at home, Obama is faced with a constant stream of attacks from his Republican opponents, who have faulted him for appearing weak and thereby inviting the kind of aggression now being witnessed. Thus the President has to balance domestic pressures – mid-term elections are looming in the fall – with international diplomacy.

In the meantime, there are apprehensions and worries on the US side regarding European resolve and the ability of the complex entities and the 28 member states of the European Union to hold and stick to a common position over the long-term. At the same time, some in Washington may hope that the current crisis shocked European leaders enough to initiate a rethinking of the continent’s approach to hard power politics. Thus, there may be renewed challenges from American leaders calling on European countries to take on more responsibility for the continent’s security and to invest more in their according capabilities.

However, and despite the successful presidential visit and a lot of movement in transatlantic relationships over the past few weeks, the broader outlook for a “Transatlantic Renaissance” remains uncertain. So far, an overarching theme and project still seems to be missing. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could fill this void, but negotiations are still at an early stage and are promising to become more complicated over the coming months.

For the time being, the dramatic developments in Ukraine have put Europe back on the American foreign policy map. But just as the crisis in the Eurozone briefly forced the United States to pay more attention to economic developments in Europe again, this crisis is only increasing attention levels in Washington due to heightened concerns. Europe is once again in the news for all the wrong reasons. Likewise and depending on further developments in and around Ukraine, the renewed American engagement in Europe could prove temporary. For now, the transatlantic relationship remains stable and functional, yet without an overarching mission.