BRUSSELS — When Barack Obama ran on a platform of “Change We Can Believe In,” Europeans quickly counted themselves among the “we.”
On his summer trip to Berlin, Paris and London, the presidential candidate experienced Europeans’ adoration, even though he had yet to secure the Democratic nomination. More than 200,000 people turned out in Berlin's Tiergarten Park to hear Obama lament that too many in Europe had come to view the U.S. under George W. Bush as "part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right."
It was remarks like these — along with a platform that aligned with European interests on climate change, Iraq and Afghanistan — that resulted in 69 percent support for Obama in a pre-election poll taken by the German Marshall Fund.
But it wasn’t just the issues: European leaders are determined to shake off perceptions of their inferiority on the world stage. At an informal foreign ministers meeting in Avignon, France, in September, they spent the entire first day discussing the implications of the U.S. election for Europe. The most pressing issue on the docket — the Russia-Georgia conflict in which reigning EU President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had become the lead negotiator — waited until the leaders made joking bets about whether Obama or John McCain would win the U.S. presidency.
At that and other meetings, decision-makers acknowledged they needed to put an end to the image of Europe as a 27-headed, feeble-hearted creature that too often does American bidding.
"We want to be a more equal partner to the United States of America — if we can," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in Avignon. "But how can we do that? We have to raise our own game to do so."
During his six-month EU presidency, which ended Dec. 31, Sarkozy succeeded in raising the bloc’s international profile. After his last appearance as EU president before the European Parliament, Sarkozy goaded his counterparts to adopt some of his energy, expressing frustration with what he considered the unnecessary formalities and repetitiveness of European policymaking. "Europe must have political will. Europe must have ambitions. Europe must stop being naïve!" he railed. "Europe has to shake a changing world."
But to recall Ferrero-Waldner, how can Europe transform itself into a "shaker" as advocated by Sarkozy, when it's more often seen as shaky? A recent Economist cover about relations with Russia even portrayed EU heads of state as quivering Jello.
While many European thinkers have published "letters to Mr. President" Obama about what Europe wants to see from him, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) suggests Brussels’ priorities should also be informed by a long critical look in the mirror. "Europe should not wait for the usual pattern of transatlantic relations to be restored, with the U.S. in the role of the policy demandeur and the EU as the reluctant follower," write three ECFR scholars in their recent study, "Rewiring the U.S.-EU Relationship."
The scholars, Daniel Korski, Ulrike Guérot and Mark Leonard, cite Afghanistan, Russia, China and the Middle East as some of the areas where the EU needs to strengthen both its vision and its cohesion. It is difficult to have effective transatlantic conversations on these topics, they write, when the EU can't distill a clear strategic viewpoint from its own members. That’s when Washington can exploit bilateral support from individual member states — such as in the cases of sharing airline-passenger records and granting visa-waiver status — which never fails to infuriate a bypassed Brussels.
To become better known and respected by the U.S. government, the EU needs to do more self-promotion, the report recommends, including a meaningful boost in contacts between Brussels and Washington, ranging from more presidential summits to more purposeful lobbying of Congress, appreciating the legislature's weighty role in foreign policy.
The opportunity to improve Europe’s image must be seized now, underscores Korski, who has previously worked in the U.S. State Department. He notes that there are many "Europeanists" in Obama's advisory circles who will probably become administration officials. "I think they are wise about European sensitivities," he says, "so I expect some movement.”
But the moves might not all be welcome ones. Obama forewarned allies he’d be asking for more as well as offering more, and perhaps no issue will test his appeal — and Europe’s readiness to recommit to the transatlantic relationship — more than the need for additional troops for Afghanistan.
While more U.S. soldiers have already been assigned to the effort, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has told European leaders they should expect their phones to be ringing shortly after Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Obama will be harder to turn down than President George Bush, but it remains to be seen whether President Obama can cash in his Berlin lovefest for boots on the ground in a war that remains profoundly unpopular with the EU public.
After all, Obama doesn’t want to be the only change in 2009. He needs change from Europe, too.