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POLITICS-US: Europe Too Looks for a New Way Forward

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Nov 5 2008 (IPS) - If ‘change’ and ‘hope’ were the watchwords of Barack Obama’s election campaign, they were echoed strongly on the other side of the Atlantic, where his victory was swiftly applauded by Europe’s political leaders.

Whereas George W. Bush proved to be a divisive figure for the European Union – particularly with the invasion of Iraq – Obama’s apparent preference for cooperation and dialogue over conflict have won him plenty of admirers.

Expectations are running high that he will waste no time in grappling with the world’s most pressing problems such as climate change. His long-term commitment to an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century and shorter-term pledge to be represented at the international negotiations on global warming in Poznan, Poland later this year, have been noted by ecologists and policy-makers alike.

Such commitments were in stark contrast to the policy of the Bush administration, which refused to ratify the main international agreement on global warming, the Kyoto Protocol.

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said he wished to see a ‘New Deal’ involving the EU and U.S., referring to the economic stimulus package introduced by Washington in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The issues dealt with in this Atlantic-straddling partnership should include human rights, trade, the environment, the financial crisis and the fight against global poverty. “The current financial crisis can become a new opportunity for global governance,” said Barroso.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president whose country is currently in charge of drawing up the EU’s political agenda, has taken a close interest in Obama’s campaign. His adviser Pierre Giacometti has even spent a week ’embedded’ with Democratic Party strategists in the U.S. to see if their tactics could be employed by Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party.


“At a moment when we should face immense challenges together, your election inspires an immense hope in France, Europe and the world beyond,” Sarkozy wrote in a letter to Obama. “This is a hope of an America open, strong and compassionate that will once again lead the way, with its partners, by the strength of example and by adhering to its principles.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The assembly’s president, German conservative Hans-Gert Pöttering, said that Obama’s election had “proven once again the extraordinary capacity for renewal which has so often been evident at difficult moments in American history.”

Left-leaning MEPs called on Obama to ensure that the systematic abuses of human rights with which Bush’s ‘war on terror’ became synonymous are never repeated. They demanded the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, and guarantees that there will be no further torture of prisoners as part of the so-called extraordinary rendition programme undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The victory of President Obama could restore credibility and effectiveness in the fight against international terrorism,” said Italian Socialist Claudio Fava. “Credibility died under the Bush government because of the illegal, amoral and, above all, unnecessary extraordinary renditions. The Obama presidency could start a new era in EU-U.S.A. relations – without American arrogance and, at the same time, without European submission.”

But some commentators indicated there is a strong likelihood that Obama could end up disappointing those Europeans who want him to usher in a clean break with the past.

Fraser Cameron, an adviser to the Brussels-based think-tank, the European Policy Centre, argued that while Obama is considerably more favourable towards working with the United Nations than Bush was, he has nonetheless “reserved the right to take unilateral action” under particular circumstances. Because Bush has bequeathed Obama such tricky problems as Iraq and a perilous economy, Obama’s victory will “not necessarily lead to a sustained improvement in ties” with the EU, Cameron wrote in European Voice, a weekly newspaper.

Perhaps the greatest irony behind how Obama was the clear favourite on this continent is that representatives of ethnic minorities are absent at the highest levels of European politics.

In France, the only black members of the national assembly hail from the country’s overseas territories. And in Britain the number of representatives of the 646-seat House of Commons hailing from Asian or African backgrounds returned in the same election has never exceeded five.

“There is something odd about the European mania for a black American politician, even as we all know that a black president or prime minister – let alone one whose middle name is Hussein – is still unthinkable in Europe,” said Ian Buruma, professor of human rights at Bard College in New York. “Obama’s election has demonstrated that things are still achievable in the U.S. that remain unthinkable elsewhere. As long as this is so, the U.S., as first among equals, can still be looked up to as the defender of our freedoms.”

 
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