March 29, 2009 / 11:54 AM / 11 years ago

Obama stirs anxiety in Europe before visit

BERLIN (Reuters) - The enthusiasm that greeted Barack Obama’s election last year has begun to fade in some of Europe’s major capitals, replaced by concerns about the new U.S. president’s economic policies and softer stance toward Russia.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Washington announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan March 27, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Ahead of his first trip to Europe as president, officials in Berlin, Paris, London and elsewhere have applauded his decision to close Guantanamo Bay prison, to pursue dialogue with Iran and to rebalance Afghan strategy.

Europe also hopes it can work more closely with Obama than it did with George W. Bush on issues like climate change. His weekend call for a meeting in Washington next month to prepare a U.N. pact on global warming will reinforce this view.

But the first months of Obama’s presidency have also raised anxiety levels in parts of Europe — particularly in Berlin and eastern European capitals.

Top German officials have worried openly about the flood of U.S. debt Washington will issue to finance Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package and bristled at calls from members of his team for Europe to spend more to boost its own economy.

Although Obama ended up softening the “Buy America” clause in that package, there is lingering concern that Washington could resort to protectionism as U.S. economic woes deepen.

European leaders will be looking for reassurances from Obama at this week’s G20 summit in London that he will resist domestic pressures to set up new trade barriers and move to rein in the swelling U.S. deficit once the worst of the crisis is over.

In a speech to the European Parliament last week, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who holds the rotating EU presidency, described U.S. fiscal spending as a “road to hell.”

RUSSIA

Of bigger concern to Prague and its eastern neighbors has been the Obama administration’s vow to “re-set” relations with Moscow and re-examine Bush’s plans to deploy parts of a missile shield in central Europe.

A senior official in Prague recently likened Obama’s Russia stance to that of John F. Kennedy in his 1961 meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, where the young U.S. president was lectured and bullied by the Soviet leader.

Even in Berlin, officials have expressed surprise that Obama has not responded more forcefully to a hardening of Russian positions in Georgia and threats from Moscow to rearm its military to counter an expansion of NATO along its borders.

“The Obama administration needs to talk with the central and eastern European members of the EU about Russia policy,” Eckart von Klaeden, a foreign policy expert in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, told Reuters. “It could well be that signals from Washington have stoked feelings of insecurity there.”

Obama remains highly popular in Europe. Henri Guaino, senior adviser to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, last week said his denunciations of executive bonuses and readiness to take control of U.S. financial institutions were a “wonderful revolution.”

And European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has pointed to EU-U.S. “convergence” on issues like climate change and the need for more robust welfare states.

“The Americans are coming closer to what is traditionally our position,” he said in Strasbourg last week.

EUROPE LESS OF A PRIORITY?

But there is an underlying sense that Europe is not as much of a priority for the Obama administration as it was for Bush in his second term.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the first European leader to visit Obama in Washington, but the brevity of their meeting and lack of a formal dinner was interpreted in the British media as a snub.

Germany’s Merkel spoke regularly with Bush via video conference, but had to wait over two months to get a 40-minute chat with Obama.

Her advisers say they tried hard to pin down Obama’s people on a time when she could visit Washington this month but received no response. Days after informing the White House that the time to fix a meeting had passed, they received a date.

The trip never happened and a date for a visit has still not been set, leading some in Berlin to speculate that Obama may be punishing Merkel for her refusal to let him speak at the Brandenburg Gate last summer during the U.S. election campaign.

“I don’t think the apparatus is really working yet,” a German official, who requested anonymity, said of the Obama White House. “In my view, the previous administration was more serious and disciplined in the way it worked.”

Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow, Crispain Balmer in Paris, Gareth Jones in Warsaw, Keith Weir in London, David Brunnstrom and Mark John in Brussels; editing by Andrew Roche

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