- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

European leaders are getting a dose of reality about the limits of President Obama’s patience with their long-established diplomatic traditions, as his administration seeks to change nearly two decades of U.S.-European Union summit protocol.

Mr. Obama’s disappointment with European allies during his first year in office, culminating in his decision to skip a long-planned May summit in Madrid, should not come as a surprise, diplomats and analysts said.

In spite of unusual enthusiasm on the Continent about his 2008 election, they said, Europeans have delivered much less than the new president expected on Afghanistan, climate change and other items high on Mr. Obama’s agenda.

Many Europeans have had their own hopes dashed, officials on both sides of the Atlantic said. After eight often testy years dealing with President George W. Bush, they thought Mr. Obama would change the world to their liking, but now realize that any American president will act in his country’s interests first.

“We are in a period of managing down some unrealistic expectations about what the administration was going to do,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs during Mr. Bush’s first term.

“It has to be ironic to some Europeans that Bush didn’t miss a summit” despite the almost constant European criticism of his foreign policy and his unpopularity in Europe, but that it will be Mr. Obama who will skip an annual meeting that has taken place since 1991, Ms. Conley said.

“Europe is taking this awfully badly,” she added.

Le Monde, the leading French daily, noted in an editorial Tuesday, “Bush wasn’t the problem; Obama isn’t the solution. … The allies are discovering that the misunderstandings go beyond personalities.”

Because of Mr. Obama’s absence, Spain, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is likely to cancel the Madrid summit, diplomats said. The White House’s snub was an embarrassment to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and was leaked just days before he was scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama on Friday.

Mr. Zapatero and other top European leaders have attempted to tamp down speculation that the Continent has been downgraded in Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.

“I do not think he has lost interest in the EU,” Mr. Zapatero told a meeting Thursday of the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Administration officials insisted that U.S. relations with the EU are still important, but that they would like to see a change in the way U.S.-EU business is done. For example, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley indicated on Tuesday that the tradition of holding two summits every year - one in Washington and one in Europe - may be too much.

“Obviously, there will be summit meetings in the future, but as to when that occurs, we are still working those details,” he told reporters.

Mr. Crowley cited as a reason for the change the new EU structure under its new Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on Dec. 1. In addition to the system of a rotating presidency, there is now a permanent EU Council president in Brussels. Former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy was elected to that post in November.

“We are at a juncture where the structure has changed, and so the meeting structure is not only at the leader level, but at the ministerial level,” Mr. Crowley said. “All of this is kind of being reassessed in light of architectural changes in Europe.”

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