Hugo Brady: Europeans probably need to accept they have missed an opportunity

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The Independent Online

In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, the young Barack Obama is surprised by his own reaction when he visits Europe on a post-graduate "grand tour". Somehow the place, that has always drawn legions of reverential Americans to revel in culture and shared ancestry, leaves him cold. He makes for Africa instead, the continent to which he feels a more visceral connection.

That episode should have been warning enough to Europe's leaders: the world is changing fast. This US President will not waste time visiting the old continent unless it has something new to say.

And why should he? Obama's first experience of the Union was a depressing and substance-free summit in Prague last April where he was hosted by a Czech government, then the holder of the EU's rotating presidency, which had just fallen. Little he has experienced since then has convinced him that he should take the Europeans seriously as a global force.

Optimists hoped that the EU's Lisbon Treaty would put an end to such embarrassments and help the EU craft a credible common foreign policy. The Treaty abolishes the role of the rotating presidency in foreign policy in favour of a full-time EU president and a more powerful High Representative for Foreign Affairs. But instead, Europe's decline seems to be accelerating as it is sidelined in Copenhagen, dismissed by the Chinese and despaired of by the Americans.

The reality is that the Lisbon Treaty is just a piece of paper. It cannot by itself cure the Europeans of their weakness for circuitous arguments and tendency to offer up process as product. On top of this, Cathy Ashton, the EU's current High Representative, will need at least two years to implement and bed down the Treaty's foreign policy provisions.

Depressingly, the Europeans probably need to accept that they have missed the opportunity Obama's election represented, at least for now.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform