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Saturday, 13 February 2010

12 February 2010

Depending on your sense of humour, you will either find this hilarious, or if you sometimes worry about the future of Europe, you may want to weep.

As you may have heard, a planned US-EU summit that was due to be held in Madrid in May has been cancelled after President Obama sent word he was sorry, but he just didn't have time.

But that doesn’t mean that preparations weren’t already well under way. And the big issue to be resolved, apparently, was which EU leader would get to shake the Presidential hand first.

The Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, insisted that it should be him. After all, he would be the host, and Spain is the current holder of the rotating EU presidency.

Absolutely not, retorted Herman van Rompuy. I’m the newly appointed president of the EU Council of Ministers, so I should go first.

So a compromise was proposed: Zapatero would get first shake of the Obama hand, and van Rompuy would get to sit next to the US President at dinner.

Out of the question, said Jose Manuel Barroso. I’m the president of the European Commission. And sitting next to the US President is a privilege reserved for me and me alone.

I am indebted to the German news magazine Spiegel for the above account. So, if you’ve now stopped either laughing or crying, what should we make of this extraordinary tale? This is what Spiegel makes of it: “Europe seems intent on using etiquette to compensate for its diminishing role on the world stage. No one wants to admit what everyone can see: Europe's voice doesn't move anyone at the moment -- neither future major powers, like India and Brazil, nor leaders in Washington, Moscow or Beijing.”

You will, of course, remember what I wrote at the end of the disastrous climate change summit in Copenhagen in December. “The EU needs to reflect on why it wasn't even included in (the final evening’s) crucial 7pm get-together … Perhaps it's because in the eyes of Washington and Beijing, it simply doesn't matter as much as Brazil, India and South Africa.”

Yes, I accept that the new EU institutional arrangements put in place by the Lisbon Treaty will need to bed in. It’s possible that, over time, the EU will decide that it can manage without three simultaneous Presidents (four, in fact, if you include the President of the European Parliament), all demanding the protocol privileges appropriate to a President.

(I still remember the puzzled look on George Bush’s face, at a US-EU summit in Sweden in 2001, when the then Swedish prime minister welcomed him as “Mr President”, and then turned to the anonymous chap on his left – the president of the European commission – and welcomed him in precisely the same terms.)

Obama administration officials in Washington have admitted that they find the EU a confusing outfit to deal with. And they also admit that the US President has quite enough on his plate without flying across the Atlantic to meet a bunch of Europeans to whom he has nothing he particularly wants to say.

Yesterday in Brussels, EU leaders met to see if they could agree on what to do about poor Greece. They couldn’t. So they issued a statement which pretended that they had come up with something concrete, when everyone knew that they hadn’t.

If you look at the euro-zone, what do you see? One currency, 16 governments, and 16 electorates. For now, just two of them matter: the Germans, who don’t want their taxes to be used to bail out the profligate Greeks – and the Greeks, who don't see why their welfare benefits, pensions and state sector pay rates should be slashed to satisfy the bankers and hedge fund speculators.

I fear there’s more trouble ahead.

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