Obama and the European voice

This article was published in Newsweek
Waiting For Barack
Obama needs from Europe a Mozart symphony or a Beethoven 'Ode to Joy'—not a cacophony of voices

9 March 2009
The red carpets are being rolled out for Europe's most popular politician. In April, Barack Obama will turn up to meet his fans across the Atlantic, first for a G20 economic summit in London and then for a NATO summit in Strasbourg on the French-German border. Meantime, "Waiting for Barack" could be the title of a new play as all of Europe looks anxiously to Washington for answers to the world's intractable problems: a banking freeze-up, a job meltdown, a Middle East with no solution in sight, an Iran racing for nuclear arms, a quagmire in Afghanistan, a Russia that treats the European Union as a playpen for the Kremlin's divide-and-rule diplomatic games.
Yet Obama is the first president in decades with no experience or knowledge of Europe. His predecessor had a father who was an East Coast Atlanticist, while Bill Clinton was an Oxford-educated Rhodes scholar who played Europe like a violin. Nobody yet knows what Obama will ask of or offer Europe. But one thing is clear. Instead of a united European approach, there is a cacophony of voices as European leaders spend more time complaining about each other than finding common solutions to propose to the new president.
Since the economic crisis broke last autumn, there has been on average a European summit every three weeks. Like the Congress of Vienna, which met to decide Europe's fate in 1814 and famously danced rather than make decisions, today's European Union leaders are better at scoring points than adopting a common policy. Take Nicolas Sarkozy. In a hastily arranged television interview after mammoth demonstrations showed French discontent with their hyperactive president, he launched into a tirade against Gordon Brown's economic management. Little matter that top French economists had already endorsed Brown's fiscal-stimulus approach or that the British leader had gone out of his way to schmooze with Sarkozy after the frosty rapport between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy's assault on Brown made headlines in Britain and showed British-French disunity back in business.
Brown had already been irritated by the public criticisms of his fiscal boost from the finance ministers of Germany and the Netherlands—both fellow center-left politicians, as it happens. Thus it was a moment of pure schadenfreude when EU forecasts showed Germany facing a bigger drop in GDP than Britain. Briefers were quickly sent out from No. 10 to inject anti-German comments into the press, further stoking inter-EU disunity.
The opposition is no better. Britain's Conservative Party, now riding high in the polls, announced it would break all links with its sister center-right parties in Europe—a slap in the face for Sarkozy, Merkel, Berlusconi and Europe's other center-right prime ministers. Indeed, instead of joining hands with fellow Europeans, the continent's putative leaders are stumbling all over one another to meet Obama. When Sarkozy was elected, his spin doctors boasted that he was the first EU leader to enjoy a 30-minute talk with the new U.S. chief executive. Now Brown is enjoying his moment as the first European leader to go to Washington to meet Obama and address a joint session of Congress. Yet while Obama announces that a further 17,000 U.S. soldiers will be deployed to Afghanistan, Europeans refuse to send more combat troops. Instead, the French pursue their own policy in Africa. Germany has its new-look Ostpolitik, saying ja to most Kremlin demands. Twenty years after Milosevic launched his extremist Serb nationalism, which turned the Balkans into a charnel house, Europe cannot bring stability there. Turkey waits while Islamophobic European politicians pontificate against Muslims and their religion.
Rarely has Europe been so at sixes and sevens, so disunited, so quarrelsome on economic, security and foreign-policy issues. Pity Obama. He basked in the glow of some 200,000 Germans and their roaring applause when he spoke in Berlin last summer, as if the candidate were a new "Ich bin ein Berliner" JFK. European politicians of left and right claim to be their local Obama, and "Yes, we can" is the most overused cliché on European politicians' lips. Yet more than popularity, what he really needs is a united Europe. But instead of a Mozart symphony or a Beethoven "Ode to Joy"—the unity of Enlightenment culture—he is getting a cacophony of different voices, screeching at each other. Little wonder if he decides to tune out.
Waiting for Barack is not good enough. After 1945 Winston Churchill inspired with his call for a United States of Europe. Willy Brandt led the world with détente politics. Jacques Delors constructed the Single European Market with a social face and helped bring in the euro. Today's European leaders trip over opinion polls and follow national emotional spasms rather than define a new vision. Why should Obama do Europe's heavy lifting when European leaders no longer aspire to reshape their own continent?