For Barack Obama, a crash course in European politics

  • World
  • Saturday, 05 Nov 2011

CANNES, France (Reuters) - Time was when U.S. presidents stood in the centre of events at world summits. This week in Cannes, Barack Obama appeared at times a bewildered spectator as European leaders scrambled through a whirlwind of meetings called to bring Greece to heel and save the euro currency.

Where the U.S. President would traditionally be the last to arrive at a gathering, there was Obama on Friday morning, one of the first at the Palais des Festivals, chatting with the other leaders as they trickled into the lobby. Only when German Chancellor Angela Merkel crossed the threshold did he break off, hoping perhaps for news of the latest conclave or consultation.

"I guess you guys have to be creative here," he told her, as he led her away to a quiet and distant corner. For six minutes they talked, Obama leaning back on a table, Merkel standing, gesticulating as, most likely, she explained the fast moving events, the many meetings, of the week or the morning.

Merkel has been at the centre of efforts to still the storm around Greece's debt crisis. She and French President Nicolas Sarkozy confronted Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou at a hastily-convened meeting on Wednesday, berating him for calling a referendum on a bailout that had been painstakingly agreed only the week before.

It was by far the most blunt-speaking and emotional of many euro-consultations. Within 24 hours it had shaped the course of Greek politics, prompting a backdown on the referendum on fears of Greek expulsion from the common currency.


By Friday, Papandreou had backed down from the referendum and was struggling to save his government in a confidence vote. The euro meetings continued in various forms.

"There are a lot of meetings here in Europe," Obama told a news conference at the end of the Cannes G20 summit of leading industrial powers. "So having to coordinate all those different interests is laborious, but I think they're going to get there."

He did however present himself as a man struggling to grasp the fragmented culture of multi-national European politics.

"There are just a lot of institutions here in Europe and I'm not sure whether it was Sarkozy or Merkel or (European Commission President Jose Manuel) Barroso or somebody here, they joked with me that I'd done a crash course in European politics over the last several days," Obama said

The G20 summit was dominated by Europe's Greek drama, drawing in the 27-nation European Union and the inner core of 17 euro currency zone nations. A form of multilateral politics profoundly alien to an American president.

Since late 2009, when the euro zone crisis began, European leaders have held at least 17 summits, numerous second-echelon ministerial meetings and countless bilaterals and telephone calls. The last two weeks has seen two full EU summits, two eurozone summits and meetings of other groups including, Ecofin, Eurogroups and the Frankfurt Group.

At the early 2009 London G20, his first, Obama was at the very centre of events, the focus of widespread admiration following his presidential election victory. He even received a round of applause at a meeting of journalists -- a rare tribute.

Things have changed. The White House insists the United States' world influence is not waning, but it is no longer in a position to offer funds to solve the problems of European states capable of solving their own problems.

Obama's crash course in European politics may stand him in good stead for any storm yet to come. Sarkozy or Merkel or Barroso will be happy to offer further lessons.

(Editing by Janet McBride)

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