Europe and the US attempt to mend fences, but deep rifts remain

Ahead of the G-20 summit, Spain decides to withdraw troops from Kosovo and investigate Bush officials for torture.

Andrea Comas/Reuters
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (r.) listens to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), during a meeting at Madrid's Moncloa palace on March 30, 2009.

Europe's love affair with President Obama is not over, but the honeymoon seems to be.

As the president arrives in London today at the start of his first transatlantic trip, he will be welcomed by a continent that's eager to refresh its relationship with the United States. But the US and Europe are not on the same page in several key areas.

There are fundamental differences in approaches to correcting the world's economic woes – the Czech Premier Mirek Topolanek, speaking as head of the rotating European Union presidency, said last week that Obama's economic recovery plans were "a way to hell." Europe and the US remain divided over Afghanistan.

And perhaps the starkest example of lingering US-Europe divisions comes out of Spain.

Crusading Spanish human rights judge Baltasar Garzón is now considering criminal charges against top Bush administration officials for the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Judge Garzón's previous prosecution of Gen. Augusto Pinochet eventually resulted in the Chilean dictator's arrest in Britain.

Spain also recently announced that it will withdraw the bulk of its 620 troops from Kosovo this summer. In response, US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said, "We are deeply disappointed by this decision."

The timing of the Kosovo troop withdrawal announcement was unfortunate for the government of socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who will meet Mr. Obama at the G-20 summit in London.

Mr. Zapatero has been trying hard to rekindle bilateral relations with the new president. Spain was one of the first to accept, in principle, the transfer of some Guantánamo Bay terrorism detainees. Mr. Bush effectively blacklisted Zapatero in 2004 after he ordered Spanish troops to withdraw from Iraq over objections to the US invasion.

Last week, Spain dispatched top officials to Washington and Brussels to iron out the recent disputes, apparently with some success. It is also reportedly preparing to as much as double its nearly 800 troops in Afghanistan, in line with Obama's requests.

But Spanish officials stand by their Kosovo decision. It is one of five EU countries that do not recognize the independence of Kosovo – a change spearheaded last year by the Bush administration. Prolonging the military mission would amount to nation-building, not peacekeeping, Spanish officials have said.

Spain is also concerned that Kosovo's secession could embolden its own separatist Basque terrorists and nationalist movements. It insists the US-led recognition of Kosovo's independence – now backed by most NATO allies, but rejected globally by all but 56 countries – is not sanctioned by the United Nations.

Obama has a lot of political capital and good faith in Europe, says Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, a research fellow and analyst on transatlantic relations in the Brussels-based independent think tank Centre for European Policy Studies. "At the same time, there is growing awareness that the period of optimism has to be replaced with action, with concrete steps."

The priority is the economy, Mr. Kaczynski says. But many European countries disagree with Obama's strategic shift to enforce Afghanistan's NATO role. Most EU members object to a gung-ho approach to confronting the Taliban and favor more nation-building. They have so far resisted significantly increasing their combat presence there.

Europe is also eager to cooperate with Obama to convince Iran to stop enriching uranium. The EU has welcomed his new approach, but expects a united front. There are also stark differences in how to proceed with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially in how to pressure Israel for real commitments to a peaceful two-state solution and whether to directly engage groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Europe and NATO are also divided over what to do about Russia's resurgence, especially after its war last year with Georgia.

That is why Obama's European tour has raised expectations on both sides of the Atlantic. The EU is no longer worried about a relapse to unilateralism. Instead, the block "is learning what a multilateral United States means," Kaczynski says. "It would be naive" to expect relations to evolve suddenly, "but the past months have shown the Americans are trying to learn.... We see cool relations in this new phase, but hopefully this will bring the US one step further toward Europe."

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