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The forgotten continent

M.N. Hebbar (ISSUES) / 13 November 2012

Europe breathed a sigh of collective relief as results from Washington confirmed the re-election of Barack Obama to the White House on November 6 in what was clearly both a portent for the future as well as lessons to be learned from the past.

As it happened, the presidential campaigns steered fairly clear of the nagging picture of the US economy. Indeed, the campaign negated the old political slogan and reiterated a new ‘It’s not the economy, stupid’, only to reveal a strong mix of racial and cultural factors and identity politics determining the outcome of the presidential election.

The Europeans did not fail to note a glaring omission of the very existence of Europe in either of the presidential candidates’ radar as they discussed, thrashed and thrust their poll issues before eager voters in an attempt to impress upon them the virtues of their respective policy prescriptions.

As a backgrounder, it needs mention that Europe has, in the meanwhile, come a long way from the 1970s when America deemed it its duty to promote the transatlantic partnership and defend the then Western Europe from Soviet hegemony. But the time is gone when Washington looked at Europe with mono-polar attention.

In contrast, today’s Europe presents a bewildering, diverse and complicated scenario of 27 states in a European Union and an eurozone with 17 nations — and still counting — that is struggling to find its essence, style, function and rationale. Understandably, Washington has found it difficult, sometimes perplexing and at times almost exasperating to conduct and strengthen the transatlantic partnership. Some of the occasions that President Obama referred to Europe were unfortunately in negative connotations as when he preached fiscal prudence to avoid an economic catastrophe that might otherwise lead to the example of crisis-ridden Greece today. 

This is not to say that Europe is not important, only that its priority has fallen way down in content due to political compulsions.

Obama’s attention bypasses Europe and rather focuses on the developments in the Muslim world, the problems in Af-Pak region where a withdrawal of American troops in 2014 looms large, the tensions with Pakistan, the strategic significance of the Pacific region, South-East Asia and finally, China. And what image of Europe do the Europeans present today when they complain of not being reciprocated after their unstinted public support to Obama, albeit in foreign policy terms? Does Europe suffer from a dose of American detachment? Well, Europe has been perceived by Washington in terms of diminished economic and military significance. Many of the former’s defence budgets have been pared. Nor has Europe been able to lend a helping hand in the US military initiatives (for instance, read Libya). Its economic might is a confusing picture, with the exception of Germany.

Who takes up the phone call when Washington wishes to speak to Europe, famously asked former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger? The European Commission? The German Chancellor? The European Central Bank? The answer, surprisingly, is not clear to this day.  German chancellor Angela Merkel has, in the meanwhile, been engaged in a lone but determined drive for deeper integration among EU economies in a bid to thoroughly overhaul the EU that would lead to centralising more powers in Brussels.  This is not welcome in countries such as the UK whose prime minister David Cameron is at odds with public opinion which would rather take the UK out of the EU.

What is more, Germany has argued that the 17 eurozone governments should prepare to cede more sovereignty to the EU over explosively sensitive areas such as budgets, tax and labour policies and wants them in place within the next two or three years.

The unresolved crisis of the eurozone, with Greece teetering on the brink, is no incentive for the US to push for economic co-operation. But there is a quiet resolve among the eurozone nations to hang together and to not let the euro collapse. If it does, Germany’s export-led economy will be the first to take a hit. A monetary union will eventually bail out Greece, whatever the consequences.

President Obama will resuscitate the US economy and restore it to the powerhouse that it once was. The patience of Washington may be sorely tried in the Europe of today but it is a safe bet that the transatlantic relations will remain greatly important.

M N Hebbar is a veteran journalist and commentator on European affairs

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