President Obama is scheduled to travel through Europe the week of May 23, with stops in Ireland, Britain, France, and Poland. Obama will participate in the G8 summit in Deauville, France. To preview his visit and discuss U.S.-European relations, Carnegie will hosted a media conference call with Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe.
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THOMAS CARVER: OK. Good morning, everyone. This is Tom Carver, the vice-president of communications at Carnegie. And thank you for joining this morning’s conference call with Jan Techau, who is the head of Carnegie Europe, based in Brussels. Jan is a(n) expert on EU integration, foreign policy and trans-Atlantic affairs, and prior to his appointment served at the NATO Defense College Research Division, and a regular contributor to European media.
So this call is on the record, and is slated to last a maximum of 30 minutes. So I will ask a couple of questions of Jan just to get it going, but for – if anyone wants to jump in with questions, obviously, feel free.
Jan, maybe you could just start by giving us a sense of where you think the most important points are, or the most important issues that are going to be covered during Obama’s tour of Europe next week.
JAN TECHAU: Yes. Hello. Thanks, Tom, and hello to everybody in the conference call from – hello from Brussels.
Well, the most important thing on the agenda, or the most important single element, of course, is the G-8 summit in France. That’s by far the most important business . Everything else, I think, has just been (surrounded ?), in a sense. And the French presidency of the G-8 has compiled a bit of a garden-variety agenda for this meeting, which ranges from cybersecurity to green growth, Afghanistan, energy efficiency and control, all the way down to the Arab world and development and – (coughs) – sorry, and the partnership with Africa. So it’s a garden variety of things.
I think what will stand out is probably the Libya question, and to a certain extent also the question about how to deal with the vacancy at the International Monetary Fund. Those will be important. Libya, of course, as the war effort – there is talk that the Russian government will use the meeting to voice its (disconcern ?) about missile defense and the fact that a deal has really been struck with the Russians, and trying to highlight the disunity that we see on the trans-Atlantic or on the Western side, really, where we don’t have a unified position on missile defense yet, and the Russians are trying to play this to a certain extent. That’s probably the G-8.
And then we have two more things, I think, from the foreign policy perspective that are really important. One is the visit in Britain, which, again, will be mostly about Libya, I assume, and then the visit of Poland, which is kind a reinvestment of the president into Central Europe, which has been, you know, had fallen off the American agenda to a certain extent. Experts in Washington also are quite concerned about the fact the American president has not really played that region very intensively, and there’s a degree of disappointment among Poles and Czechs and Hungarians that the president has not, you know, taken too much attention to their affairs, especially the Poles – (inaudible, background noise) – the president didn’t go to the funeral of President Kaczynski who died in the plane crash, so – and also, of course, we’ve seen fallouts over missile defense between Poland and the United States. Poland is taking over the EU presidency in July and Poland has a very strong agenda with the United States concerning the visa regulations; it is the only country within the Schengen Area, the European Union Schengen Area of free movement, that has not yet received a visa labor status issued by the United States. So that’s going to be on the agenda there.
The Irish visit probably has mostly domestic reasons, at least from a European perspective – domestic U.S. reasons, that is. In the upcoming election cycle in the United States, the Irish vote is not unimportant and you could even argue that maybe the Catholic vote is not entirely unimportant. This is why Poland might also be a nice fit into the travel agenda. Both the Irish vote and the Catholic vote more generally have tended to be swing votes in the past few elections and the president might hope that by addressing the concerns there, he will gain from that in the election cycle.
It’s a bit of a tradition now that American presidents visit Ireland. Basically, ever since John F. Kennedy, all of them have done so, which is quite extraordinary, given the relatively small importance of Ireland in terms of, you know, geopolitical – the geopolitical big picture. And then there is, of course, also a tiny little other reason: There are family ties on the president’s mother’s side to Ireland, and that has also played a role why he’s actually visiting Ireland at this point.
I think this is probably what I could say initially about what the outstanding issues are.
MR. CARVER: And Jan, could you tell us – describe a little bit about the German priorities here? I mean, what is Angela Merkel looking for or hoping to get out of both the G-8 and the Obama visit?
MR. TECHAU: I think, not knowing the exact specific German agenda for these meetings, I think there are two things that the Germans will probably focus on. One is to still do damage control over the German abstention in the Security Council vote on Libya. The Germans have been trying to, you know, mend fences after the fallout over this, which was a lot more significant than the Germans expected, and have been trying to move closer to the United States on certain issues, specifically on the issue of Palestinian statehood, and I think they will try to use the G-8 agenda to demonstrate closeness to the United States. I think that might be one. How this is going to play out in these issues is hard to say because, as I said, it’s a bit of a garden-variety agenda, and you never know what, in the end, will play the most important role in the conference room.
The second thing has to do with the International Monetary Fund. The Germans, who are pretty much the first European nation to speak out that, you know, the chairmanship or the managing director post should stay, basically, within Europe, and should be post – should be filled again by a European candidate. And the Germans are very close on this issue with the French; the Germans favor Madame Lagarde, the French finance minister, as a successor to Mr. Strauss-Kahn. And so this is probably also going to be something the Germans will be strongly interested in.
MR. CARVER: What about the euro? Do you anticipate the Americans will weigh in on the state of the Euro at all?
MR. TECHAU: No, I don’t, actually. The Americans are certainly concerned about it, but there’s very little they can actually do about this. It’s really – the ball here is really in the Europeans’ field. And it’s not even the EU as a whole, it’s only the Euro Group. And the Americans have a strong interest in a stable Eurozone and in stability in Europe in general, but I’m not sure that they have a specific agenda that they’re pushing on the issue.
And I don’t think that they will – that they will mingle with this issue, which is really primarily a European one. It has to do with the Greek bailout and the entire question of how the disparities within the European – within the Eurozone can be overcome, and what the onset of the crisis is. The Europeans are still bantering about what the real lessons to learn from this are. There is this idea of more strongly coordinated economic governance in the Eurozone, which the Germans traditionally have been opposed to, and the French have traditionally advocated. Now the crisis has changed the German position, and I think that’s playing out mostly between the capitals here. I don’t see any leading role of the United States in the euro crisis at this point.
MR. CARVER: OK. Thank you. Does anyone else want to jump in and ask a question?
MR. TECHAU: Just from my side, I have very strong background noises which make it sometimes difficult to understand what’s coming from you, but I don’t know how that has been caused. I just wanted to note that.
MR. CARVER: Yes. We’re hearing it as well. If there’s – there’s someone who seems to be moving something near the phone.
MR. TECHAU: OK. Now it’s over, at least for the moment.
MR. CARVER: It’s gone. OK. So, does anyone have any questions?
Q: Yeah. Can I ask a question, please?
MR. CARVER: Sure, yeah.
Q: Could you be – please speak a little bit – talk about the Polish side of the visit. I mean, Hungary is currently holding the EU presidency, and there was some disappointment back in Hungary over the visit to the extent that – you know, the Poles that just – next in line – starting the presidency in July.
And on the other hand, one knows that you just can’t compare the importance, the significance of Poland and Hungary in the United States. Poland is much bigger. The Polish population here is much bigger. And with the elections coming in the States next year, it may also be a factor that President Obama may want to give a gesture to the Poles in their home country. I don’t know how you see it. Do you see it differently or similarly to me?
MR. TECHAU: I would say, in general, that probably – you know, that the travel schedule of the American president is not really synchronized as to fit the European rotating presidency. We have seen that Obama regards this thing as a small issue, when he basically decided not to go to the EU-U.S. summit early last year. And the last one – the last summit happened in November, I think, of last year, in Lisbon. And that one – he was there because of the nature of the summit that happened around that time.
So he’s not primarily concerned about the rotating presidency. So I would – I – the significance of Poland taking over in relationship to the U.S. president’s visit is probably small. However, the disappointment that you’re voicing, of course, is quite graspable, but it’s graspable basically across Europe, that the presidency has so, kind of visibly, shown his disinterest in the continent. And this is why I believe he’s taking the occasion now, after Deauville, to travel to Poland and to show the region, specifically this region, that he’s still interested in it, and that he had – he believes that they have a strategic value for the United States.
I still wouldn’t overemphasize this, but it’s like – I would call it a general kind of reinvestment in the region. I’m not sure it has any kind of very specific agenda-driven, you know, relevance at this point. But there was a lot of pressure on the president, on behalf of the foreign policy community in Washington, to not forget about this element of the European landscape, which plays a significant special role within NATO, especially in relationship to Russia.
And I think it was – it is symbolic. It is not a huge symbol, but it is mostly a symbolic visit, if I might, you know, paint it like that. I think that’s my reading of the situation.
Q: Thank you very much.
Q: May I ask a question?
MR. CARVER: Yes, please, go ahead.
Q: (Inaudible) – move back to Palestine, and the speech yesterday of the president. And that – there is the – I mean, there was some – (inaudible) – in this country tempted to recognize the Palestinian state at the U.N. in September. The – President Obama just closed the door very abruptly on that.
Do you think that might come up, and do you think the Europeans might backpedal on this?
MR. TECHAU: It could come up, certainly. It is something that Europeans are very much concerned about, mostly because. again, they are not united on the issue. The Europeans have not managed to create some kind of common position on this. And I think everybody was waiting for both the president and Mr. Netanyahu to give a speech. Now Netanyahu has given a speech. It has not turned out to be, you know, a landmark speech.
And so the lack of a common line on the European side becomes all the more obvious. It might come up. Again, my feeling is that the president will not be pushing the Europeans on anything. I think the focus here is mostly on how to prevent the General Assembly vote in September either from happening or from causing a huge disruption.
There will be feverish diplomacy. But as we all know, the Europeans have not really played a decisive role in the diplomacy of the region. They have great involvement in terms of development aid. And support for the Palestinians has never really translated into much of a strategic role in the decision-making there, mostly because they are just not a viable, you know, security guarantor in the region.
And so it’s shameful, basically, from my perspective, that the Europeans were not able – even though it has been long in the making – to develop this kind of unified position. But at the same time, it’s also not utterly important that they don’t have one.
What’s going to be important is, between now and the vote – the scheduled vote in the General Assembly – the feverish diplomacy between Washington and Tel Aviv and the Palestinians at the Europeans, as usually, will probably play a side role in this.
Q: Thank you, And in follow-up, can you describe the position in Europe? You have the U.K. and France – (inaudible) – more on the side – (inaudible) – the state. But the other Europeans are very much against that?
MR. TECHAU: I’m very sorry, could you repeat that, because I couldn’t understand the question because of some noise in the background.
Q: It’s – could you describe the positions a little bit more specifically of France and the U.K. – are more in the line of recognizing the state, but Germany would oppose?
MR. TECHAU: Yes, this is the positioning that we’ve seen. These – the French and the British are more in favor of this, in my opinion. This is an instrument on behalf of those two countries to actually increase the pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to move on the issue and to move more dramatically than he has indicated that he would.
The German position is different. The German position is very much to be interpreted in the follow-up of the Libya vote in the Security Council. It is not really driven too much by an Israel agenda, but mostly to support the American reluctance. We all know that the Germans have a very specific relationship with the Israelis. They have been very reluctant to put any kind of pressure on Tel Aviv, and it’s very obvious.
But it’s more, actually – I think – a damage-control motivation on behalf of the Germans vis-à-vis America than it is actually an agenda vis-à-vis Israel.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi, Just back on the G-8 agenda. As you mentioned, it is really a sprawling agenda, although it does seem that one of the key elements really here is the effort to sort of jumpstart the Arab world economy, with pledges that we’re hearing of quite a significant amount of money coming from the United States and others.
The question, I guess, is – you know, how effective will the G-8 actually be with its agenda? Is the G-8 effective in general?
And second question is that some people say that, you know, that each of the Western powers that are party to the G-8, facing sort of major economic and political problems at home – that there is actually now some sort of a void in global leadership, that there’s sort of nobody leading the world. I just wonder, how do you see the situation?
MR. TECHAU: On the first part of the question, on jumpstarting the Arab economies, I think this is one thing that the G-8 could be effective on, and the debt relief that the American president promised vis-à-vis Egypt in his speech. What certainly – that set a precedent. That was clearly some kind of leadership that he wanted to exercise there.
Debt relief is one of the big issues that is being debated here in Brussels as well, as one of the measures that the Europeans could take that would have an immediate effect in the region. The big question is whether the G-8 will talk about this mostly in terms of, you know, putting money on the table, or whether they will come up with some kind of political agenda for change there.
The Arab reform movement, if you will, are very reluctant to any kinds of pressures from the outside. They want support, but they want it in a mostly technical way, not really in any kind of – you know, way that would be tied to a political agenda. It’s a very, very difficult kind of terrain that they are treading there.
But if they were willing to put a significant amount of money on the table to, for example, support the election process in Egypt and the follow-up processes, which will be highly intensive and need a lot of oversight, and probably also technical assistance – that will be a step that could be taken. Debt relief is probably one of the most important things.
On all of the other classical instruments, like foreign direct investment in the region, the ball is mostly on the Arab side because they have to create the kind of conditions that would make it attractive for Westerners to actually get their money there. And so that is something that the G-8 can’t really, you know, leverage much, in my opinion.
The cluelessness, if I may say so – the cluelessness here in Brussels, and to a certain extent, also, I think, in Washington, about what to do with the region – what could be the proper steps, somewhere between, you know, being active, but on the other hand, not being perceived as being neocolonial or patronizing – is very, very difficult.
And we’ve had plenty of conversations here with policymakers in the institutions in Brussels. And they have all kinds of great ideas. The commission and the European Action Service have put a nice package of things on the table, which is currently being debated here. But as to how to implement this in concrete terms – it’s – people really don’t know how to do it properly, partly because they don’t know who to talk to on the other side.
And whether the G-8 meeting can actually improve the situation on this, I don’t know. It’s probably slightly too big picture for going down to the detail level and seeing what the actual plan for implementation could be.
Q: OK, and part – just on the second much sort of broader question about –
MR. TECHAU: Oh, the leadership question.
Q: Yeah, yeah, yeah – (laughs).
MR. TECHAU: Well, this is the big picture question that – you know, all things I just like to talk about all the time – you know, where do we stand in terms of global leadership.
We certainly observe, in terms of, you know, the ability to lead. We see a reduced ability of the Americans and the Europeans – basically, the West – to impose its ideas directly or indirectly on the world. I think that the competition for global leadership is much bigger than it was even two or three years ago, before the financial crisis.
The interesting thing is that the competition, I think, now is mostly about creative ideas, about – you know, what could be the future of the international financial system; who’s bringing up the right kinds of ideas. So there’s – and mostly, these ideas are still coming from the West, with exceptions, of course, but mostly they are.
So I think global leadership is being redefined in many ways at the moment, and the G-8 itself has lost importance in terms of leadership because there is now the G-20, of which the G-8 is only a part. And so some people are even asking and questioning whether the G-8 in a strict sense is even necessary still.
So we see a global power shift. It’s – what’s interesting about the trans-Atlantic relationship is – in terms of your question, is that it is really the only trans-continental kind of relationship that really works. We don’t have that anywhere else in the world, and because of two reasons – because we are the ones in the West, if I may say “we” – that have both the assets, at least to a certain extent, still – and the sense of responsibility to provide stability around the world. Nobody else in the world elsewhere has this.
And this is what makes the trans-Atlantic relationship unique. This is not without problems. This is not without legitimacy problems. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we’re looking eye to eye on all of these issues across the Atlantic. But if you compare the trans-Atlantic relationship to other trans-continental or international relationships of that kind, it is the only one that really works fully properly.
And this is basically – I mean, we’re talking about problems most of the time, but when you look at the EU-U.S. agenda, with trade disputes and technical issues on compliance, and stuff like this – that’s really very detailed and very small as compared to some of the much bigger issues elsewhere. And this gives you an indication of how good the relationship is.
And to a certain extent, this is also why people still look at the trans-Atlantic community for some leadership. It’s mostly a leadership that comes from ideas, less from anything else. And I think this is probably a complicated answer to your question. But, you know, who leads the world is certainly not an easy question to answer in a simple way.
Q: Yeah, that’s – I mean, that’s a very interesting answer. So basically, the emerging markets obviously – you know, have become a very powerful economic bloc and more influential in that sense. But in terms of actual sort of ideas leadership, you’re saying they’re not necessarily there yet. The West still leads on that.
MR. TECHAU: No, we – absolutely. I think I would by and large agree to this. This is what I meant to say. I mean, there are ideas coming up here and there on financial regulations, yes. But across the board, it’s still the West that drives the agenda. This is probably about to change. But for the moment, that’s still the case, and this of course gives Western leaders more responsibility than they maybe sometimes are willing to embrace. And it’s probably a politically incorrect thing to say, that the West to a certain extent still dominates the debate.
But it’s just, I think, when you look at initiatives, that’s very clearly the picture you get. And this is where the G-8, even though it’s basically – you can look at it as being just one gathering of this kind, is still the most outstanding element. And you know, with Russia and China playing important roles, but not really in the agenda setting, and I find that hugely fascinating. It’s – that would be something that I would have to look into.
Now that the G-20 is widening the horizon for this kind of meeting, that might change. But the G-20 has been important – only one indicator of the relatively weaker West, but it has not really replaced the G-8, or the West, for that matter, as the leading generator of ideas and stability in the world, I guess.
Q: All right, that’s great, thank you.
MR. CARVER: OK, anyone else?
Well, we are right on 11:00. So if there’s no other questions that – Jan, do you want to – do you have any other closing thoughts that you want to say?
MR. TECHAU: No, not at this point. The only thing that I can say is that the colleagues that have been listening to this can at any point, of course, contact me directly here at Carnegie Europe. I will be in Poland on the second day of Obama’s visit there and could comment from there. If that is something that people will be interested in, please let me know, and we can talk about the issues and some of the things he said there.
MR. CARVER: OK. And there will be a transcript of the call for those who want it up on our website by tonight so that you’ll have it over the weekend. But thank you very much, Jan, for that very interesting discussion, and for everyone for joining. And that is the end of the call.
MR. TECHAU: Thank you very much.