Thursday, January 22, 2009

To change or not to change

There was dancing in streets around the world when Barack Obama was elected President this past November. A collective sigh of relief could almost be heard. Now that he’s officially taken office, some European politicians are beginning to reflect about just what his election might mean for them. Could this be infectious? What if their constituents demand change? (GW)

Obama's American dream makes Europe wonder

20 January 2009

Europeans appear to be dazed and confused about the United States' decision to elect a symbol of change to the White House. Some wish their own societies were capable of similar breakthroughs, but others are sceptical of President-elect Barack Obama's ability to bring about real change, reveals a round-up of contributions from the EurActiv network.


Barack Obama was an early opponent of the Bush administration's foreign policies, calling for "phased redeployment" from Iraq and demanding the opening of diplomatic dialogue with Syria and Iran.

During his campaign, the Illinois senator stated that he would cut defence budgets and stop investing in "unproven" missile defence systems. Obama also called for more decisive international action against genocide in Darfur.

Obama's international agenda, and the shift from a Republican to a Democratic administration from which neo-conservatives have been expelled, has inspired European politicians to speak of "a new beginning in transatlantic relations". But much over-expectation has accompanied more realistic hopes.

Tolerance and nationalism

"When will Hungary have a Roma prime minister? When will it be mature enough to take a step like this?," asked one Hungarian blogger . Hungary has a Roma community of nearly 600,000 people, and although Budapest has made genuine efforts to put effective policy in place, the Roma community largely remains marginalised, as is the case elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Indeed, the election of a black American president has raised questions in Europe about the ethnic tolerance of the old continent's societies. One European politician has already been dubbed "the European Obama": Cem Ozdemir, a German MEP of Turkish descent who was recently elected co-chairman of the Green party in Germany (EurActiv 17/11/08).

But some in Europe view that decision as an attempt to copy the Americans rather than a genuine "civilisation choice", commented Slovak MEP Milan Gaľa for EurActiv Slovakia.

"The fact that Barack Obama will be the first Afro-American in history to occupy the most important seat in the White House represents, forty years after the death of Martin Luther King, an important statement about the development of American society and can move our whole civilisation in a positive direction," Gaľa said.

Besides ethnic tolerance, Europeans are also challenging their nationalisms. A Hungarian blogger of Slovak nationality wrote : "Obama materialises a dream. A dream that can give strength to a Hungarian Slovak." He added, with a degree of scepticism: "Imagine a [Slovak] Hungarian doing this […] after 20-30 years!"

Politics online

Many Europeans admire the use of the Internet in US society, and the unprecedented skill of Obama's team in transforming the electoral process into a discussion (EurActiv 04/11/08).

Tellingly, Margot Wallström, EU Commission vice president responsible for communication, wrote on her blog: "The Internet has made the whole electoral process more of an open discussion thanks to the community mentality evident on the web, and there will be lessons for us in Europe to learn, but I will return to that another time."

Indeed, Europe will need to return to this, with the European elections waiting around the corner in June 2009.

To change or not to change

Change in the United States' unilateral approach to world politics appears to be Europe's biggest hope, with issues like the Iraq war and the war on terror sparking a wide transatlantic divide during the Bush years.

But government officials in the Czech Republic, which is currently at the EU's helm, hope there will be no major changes in US foreign policy.

The installation of a missile defence radar base on Czech soil is seen by the conservative-led government as a major priority, with Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek trying to trade its installation against the ratification of the EU's Lisbon Treaty (EurActiv 18/12/08). In fact, ratification of the Lisbon Treaty was delayed precisely because Prague was waiting for Obama to take a position on the missile defence system.

This is another reason why the Czech opposition Social Democrats led by Jiri Paroubek are hoping that the US military's plans will change. The Czech daily Hospodarke noviny on Monday (19 January) quoted incoming Under-Secretary of Defence Michele Flournoy as saying in Congress that the anti-missile plans could be revalued "in a larger European security context," involving relations between the US and Russia.

Will this make the radar redundant? The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuses to accept that this would mean the end of the radar project, the daily further wrote.

'The bread will not be cheaper' after Obama's inauguration

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the first to host Obama on European soil at the Elysée Palace when he was still campaigning for the White House back in July 2008, called the incoming president his "buddy" ("mon copain").

But now, Sarkozy appears less enthusiastic. The daily Le Parisien quotes one of Sarkozy's closests aides as saying: "Obama is here to defend the interests of the United States, not to make us presents."

Eastern European popular wisdom seems to go in the same direction. Slovak politicians as a whole did not show over-excitement on the occasion of the US elections. The country's Prime Minister Robert Fico responded to repeated requests by journalists to comment by saying: "The bread will not be cheaper [after Obama's inauguration]." He then declined to further comment on America's choice of president.

Stanley Crossick, a policy analyst and founding chairman of the European Policy Centre, writes on Blogactiv that "there are likely to be far less changes in the substance of foreign policy objectives than in style". Given the current difficult economic situation in the US, Crossick predicts that the first priorities of the new president will be domestic, saying that "it will take some considerable time to see a coherent foreign policy emerge".

EU climate lead in peril?

On the environmental front, many analysts have predicted that Obama will "outgreen Europe" by adopting an ambitious agenda on climate change (EurActiv 19/01/09).

Willy de Backer, founder of the website 3EIntelligence, writes on Blogactiv that Europe may lose its self-acclaimed "climate leadership". Moreover, De Backer sees a climate "counter-revolution" in the EU against the Commission's climate and energy package, led by the new EU member states (which he says never had a green revolution or strong environmental movements in the first place).

Turkey almost hostile

But if there is a place in Europe where Obama's election has raised no enthusiasm at all, it is Turkey. The main reasons for this are Obama's remarks on what is officially referred to in Ankara as "the 1915 events" – the Ottoman mass killing of Armenians – and the Cyprus issue. Indeed, Obama made few friends in Ankara by calling Turkey an "occupier" of the divided island.

Unlike in Eastern Europe, anti-Americanism seems to be on the rise in Turkey, a sentiment which appears to have gained in strength during the two mandates of George W. Bush.

When Obama announced that Senator Joe Biden was his nominee for vice president, it caused a negative stir in Turkey, EurActiv Turkey reported.

Turkish public opinion considers US Vice President Biden to be too close to Armenian and Greek lobbies, and he has also been reproached for suggesting a partition of Iraq into three parts, including a Kurdish area, something that Turkey sees a threat.


According to Sami Kohen, a well-known journalist and expert of Turkish foreign policy, the possibility for a strategic partnership between Turkey and the Obama administration remains high, especially regarding Iran, Pakistan and the Palestinian issue, where Turkish support is needed.

But Kohen also warns of a possible destructive course in relations between Washington and Ankara. He sees the Armenian problem as a risk factor, saying that if Obama uses the word “genocide”, this would be a disaster for this strategic relation. Another risk is related to a move by Democrats, who are predominant both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, and make the Congress adopt a motion on the Armenian issue. “Then, Turkey will react harshly,” Kohen says.

The second thorny issue is Northern Iraq (the Kurdish issue), Kohen further notes. Despite agreements made during the Bush administration, there might be some problems, he warns.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy and former Ambassador to Washington Şükrü Elekdag sees the new US approach on the Kurdish militant group PKK as determinant for the future of US-Turkish relations. Elekdag deplores that in 2003 the US scrapped off the PKK from its list of terrorist organizations.

“The US, as the country occupying Iraq, has extremely important responsibilities when it comes to the PKK issue. But Americans didn’t move a muscle. Within this period, US overlooked Massoud Barzani’s exploiting the PKK and this is the real factor negatively affecting the Turkish-American relations. If the new president changes its position and permits Turkey to carry operations against the PKK, relations will change for good,” the former Ambassador advises.

The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) Deputy ,Suat Kiniklioglu voiced some optimism that Obama will not be lured into an “adventure” on the Armenian issue.

“It is less likely that the Armenian bill comes to the U.S. Congress in the first six months [,,,] The Armenian lobby will put pressure but I don’t think that Obama and his team will get into an adventure, because they cannot take the risk of turning the entire relations with Turkey upside down. They will not harm this strategic partnership,” he comments.

He appears more optimistic with regard to the Kurdish problem too. “In the issue of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the tableau is clearer. Both Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, as they announced, want to meet Turkish and Iraqi leaders and for the solution of the issue.


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