The U.S.-EU summit has been held in one form or another since 1991 and no U.S. president has skipped a meeting in 17 years, until now. The U.S. State Department has confirmed — amid a myriad possible reasons — that President Barack Obama canceled his trip to the U.S.-EU summit scheduled for May 24-25 in Spain.
U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon confirmed Feb. 1 that President Barack Obama will not attend the annual U.S.-EU summit to be hosted by Spain in May. Gordon denied the rumors that Obama was going to skip the summit to scale back his international agenda in 2010 due to domestic political concerns, stating that Obama had never committed to the trip in the first place. The summit, scheduled to take place in Madrid from May 24-25, is part of the annual (and sometimes biannual) meeting of U.S. and EU heads of government. The last time a U.S. president did not attend the summit was in 1993. Obama's cancellation comes after a relatively tepid European response at the Jan. 28 London conference on Afghanistan to the U.S. call for greater European engagement in Afghanistan. Obama's campaign promise to engage Europeans in a joint effort in Afghanistan has largely fallen on deaf ears in Europe, where he has been unable to translate his popularity among the general population into firm troop commitments from political leaders. The U.S.-EU summit has been held in one form or another since 1991. No U.S. president has skipped a meeting in 17 years. Even former U.S. President George W. Bush — who was seriously displeased by Franco-German opposition to the Iraq war and was famously indifferent to Europe — never missed a meeting, although it was during Bush's presidency that the event was scaled down from a biannual to an annual event. The reason offered by Gordon — that Obama never planned for the meeting — therefore seems grossly inadequate in the face of overwhelming historical precedent. Other alternative reasons offered by "unnamed U.S. government sources" in the U.S. press over the past two days include Washington's annoyance with the European Union's confused leadership structure and distraction by the U.S. domestic political agenda. The first reason is understandable. With the passing of the Lisbon Treaty the European Union now has a new position, the president of the European Council also referred to as the "EU president," which joins the president of the European Commission and the president of the Council of the European Union — the rotating six-month presidency (currently held by Spain) — to represent Europe. It is, therefore, not a stretch to say that the situation is confusing for outsiders such as the United States. However, this is not exactly different from previous iterations of the European Union that the U.S. administration has dealt with and is hardly a reason to cancel attendance at a routine summit. The second reason — that the domestic agenda is taking up Obama's attention — is far more convincing. Obama's Jan. 27 State of the Union speech focused overwhelmingly on domestic issues, indicating a shift in attention for the U.S. administration. With the economic crisis, health care reform and political challenges from the Republican Party coming up in the November midterm elections, Obama has a full plate domestically. Furthermore, his 2009 international travel schedule was the most intense of any first-year U.S. president, opening him up to criticism that he is not paying enough attention to domestic concerns. That said, Obama has a number of summits and visits in 2010 from which to choose to cut back on travel, but he chose the U.S.-EU summit. This will undoubtedly be noted by the Europeans. The question, then, is what sort of message Obama was trying to send to Europe by being absent. First, he is possibly trying to emphasize to the Europeans that he sees no point in meeting with them if nothing substantial comes from the gatherings, as was the case at the April 2009 and December 2008 meetings. Second, the spurn is probably connected to the underwhelming European response to U.S. calls for more troops in Afghanistan. Obama campaigned in the November 2008 elections on the premise that he would shift the global war on terror from Iraq to Afghanistan and would do so with serious contributions from America's allies. This has not materialized, with only piecemeal and token reinforcements coming from Europe. The latest troop increase pledge from Germany, for example, came at the cost of the country decreasing its number of actual combat personnel. By canceling his attendance at the U.S.-EU summit, Obama is sending a message that his willingness to talk to Europe will no longer be the default setting. It is also a message to Europe that the United States expects greater a commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, a commitment that Europe will have an opportunity to prove soon, since Iran's deadline to respond to international pressure to halt its nuclear program expires in February.