- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

BRUSSELS | Europe could mar its chance of forging a long-cherished trans-Atlantic bond with President Obama unless it quickly matches new U.S. signs of openness with decisive gestures of its own, analysts warn.

Mr. Obama’s first week in office has been a dream come true for his European admirers, with a commitment to shut the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a disavowal of the Bush administration’s controversial anti-terrorism tactics and steps to tackle climate change.

But Europe’s response so far has been less forthright, with a lukewarm answer to a U.S. appeal to help resettle Guantanamo detainees and little sign so far that its armies will match expected new U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan.

“Europe has a window of opportunity to establish itself as a reliable partner with Obama but that window will close at some point,” said Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform think tank in London.

“If it fails to deliver, that would devalue it as a partner,” he added. He cited Guantanamo, Afghanistan, global financial reform and tackling climate change as early tests of a post-Obama meeting of minds across the Atlantic.

After George W. Bush split NATO over Iraq and alienated Europeans with his skepticism on global warming, the Continent has not hidden its delight at the arrival of Mr. Obama.

His pledge to close within one year the Guantanamo prison synonymous for many with abuses carried out in the name of Mr. Bush’s “war on terror” first prompted loud praise - but then a bout of hand-wringing on the other side of the Atlantic.

European Union foreign ministers this week cited a range of legal and security problems with resettlements. Many insisted that although Europe could help, dealing with the problem had to remain the primary responsibility of the United States.

“The failure to respond by our foreign ministers this week was a great shame,” said British Liberal Democrat Graham Watson, a member of the European Parliament.

“We can’t risk getting off to a bad start with Obama - indeed we already risk that with a lack of commitment on troops to Afghanistan, and that is a harder nut to crack,” he added.

Mr. Obama has committed to send more troops to try and turn the tide of the Taliban insurgency there, and one of his first decisions in office is expected to be on a Pentagon proposal to deploy an additional 30,000 there over 12-18 months.

Yet while Europe fully expects Washington to ask it to share the burden of fighting, a meeting at NATO this month produced Finnish and German offers of troops amounting to just hundreds.

European capitals instead argue that they can play a role in other ways, notably in training police or offering more aid on “soft” areas such as development and reconstruction. But whether that will satisfy Mr. Obama remains to be seen.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said this week that Europe could not expect Mr. Obama to do all the heavy lifting.

“If the Europeans expect that the United States will close Guantanamo, sign up to climate change treaties, accept EU leadership on key issues, but provide nothing more in return, for example in Afghanistan, than encouragement - they should think again. It simply won’t work like that,” he said.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic stress that it is still early days - with Washington still not having formally requested help on Guantanamo, for example.

But on this and other big challenges, they have only limited time to ensure they see eye to eye.

No alliance government wants to see the atmosphere at a NATO summit jointly hosted by France and Germany in April soured by a mutual mud-slinging over tactics and commitment in Afghanistan.

And while there is now a trans-Atlantic consensus on the need to address global warming, Mr. Obama and Europe must act quickly to turn that into a common line to present to China and others at talks on a treaty to replace the Kyoto pact later this year.

Yet with a G20 summit set for London in April, the biggest immediate test of any new U.S.-Europe tandem will be how they work together in tackling the economic slowdown and the many regulatory failings which were a root cause.

“That will be the first step in how we interact and manage the complex dynamism between the two economies,” U.S. charge d’affaires to the EU Christopher Murray told Reuters.

Signs of how complex that will be emerged in European reaction to the passage through the U.S. House of Representatives of Mr. Obama’s $825 billion stimulus package.

The European Commission, which represents the 27-nation EU on trade matters, signaled it could contest a “Buy America” provision if included in a final version of the package and was tantamount to a prohibition of the purchase of European goods.

Ron Asmus of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a body created to promote trans-Atlantic understanding, said that repairing a relationship severely strained during the Bush years was possible, but would take time and effort on both sides.

“It’s not going to happen by itself,” he told the European Parliament seminar. “We need a generation of leaders to rebuild it. It will require a lot of hard work and heavy lifting.”

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