By John Bruton
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; 6:03 PM
President Obama's decision not to attend the planned EU-U.S. summit in Spain in May is deeply disappointing.
The president's aides, conveying the news initially in a briefing with the Wall Street Journal, say he has visited Europe a lot and has a busy domestic agenda. All participants in all summits have busy domestic agendas. All previous U.S. presidents had busy agendas, too. Obama has indeed visited European countries, including during his election campaign, but that is not a replacement for meetings with the EU.
I am among those who believe that regular top-level contact between the European Union and the United States is a good use of time -- especially when there is no big announcement to be made. Routine meetings prevent misunderstandings from turning into crises. They also reduce the risk of megaphone diplomacy becoming the norm, because participants know they have other ways to get their points across.
That thinking was shared by all U.S. administrations since 1991, when the system of regular summits was agreed between the EU and the U.S. These summits were not initiated as some sort of favor to Europeans, but because the EU has primary responsibility for a wide range of economic, environmental and travel-related issues that impact Americans. The EU and U.S. are each other's largest external investors. Additionally, U.S. policymakers have been happy to see the EU take in new member states, and may want to influence that process in the future.
I attended EU-U.S. summits under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Both presidents evidently saw them as a more efficient way of pursuing U.S. interests than separate bilateral meetings with each country.
Of course, the European Union needs to examine its own contribution.
To be heard and taken seriously in the U.S., the EU needs to present a united front. It needs to have something meaningful and strong to say. It must be prepared to be critical, if necessary. That requires prior work at home, among the 27 EU members, to establish a common position on the message to convey. The member states need to put Europe's general interests first and avoid competing with one another to develop special relationships with the U.S. at the expense of other EU members.
What is be done now? The new EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, may be able to put things right. Though the 2010 meeting was due to take place in Europe, it is more important to maintain the regular rhythm of EU-U.S. summits than it is to maintain the established rotation. So perhaps, exceptionally, Van Rompuy and the European leaders could offer to come to the U.S. this year at a time that fits everyone's busy agenda.
The writer is a former Taoiseach of Ireland and a former president of the Council of the European Union.