Publié le 11/02/2010



With the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty completed the EU is undergoing profound institutional changes. How does the US perceive the EU and these changes?

To analyze American perceptions of the EU it is first necessary to distinguish between the general American public and the American political elite.

A Gallup Poll in 2004 surveyed the general American public by asking the question “How much would you say you know about the organization called the European Union or the EU?” to which only 3% responded “a great deal” and a modest 19% responded with a “fair amount” while the overwhelming remaining 77% classified their knowledge as very little (37%) or nothing at all (40%). For this reason the focus of the discussion here is on the US political elite.

Perceptions of the US elite toward the EU

President Obama Snubs Europe?

Obama’s recent decision to cancel the EU-US summit scheduled under the Spanish presidency has stimulated new discussion and conjecture on the supposedly deteriorating state of the transatlantic relationship. Putting aside the debate concerning the appropriateness of his decision, Obama’s attitude in this instance helps to shed light on prevalent American perceptions toward the EU. The last summit attended by Obama in the EU was under the Czech presidency in Prague in April, 2009. Obama reportedly declared this summit a “waste of time” and felt that it accomplished little. This view of the Prague summit combined with the cancellation of the summit in Spain demonstrates the perception held by the administration that “Europeans are obsessed with symbols rather than substance.”

Despite an initial flurry of trips to Europe at the beginning of his presidency (though Washington feels this outreach did not succeed in gaining greater cooperation from Europe), Obama has never been to Brussels the symbolic capital of Europe. The President rather seems to favour member state’s capitals. This is puzzling given the administration’s stated support of pan-European approach. Hillary Clinton on the other hand has been to Europe seven times including Brussels twice in March and December of 2009. Clinton has also met with Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Rather than focus on foreign affairs, the Obama administration has been occupied by multiple domestic issues such as the economic crisis, job creation, and health care reform. This combined with the EU"s high expectations for the Obama administration has led to the feeling that America is taking the EU for granted. This is not the case. Hillary Clinton’s recent remarks on European Security at L’Ecole Militaire in Paris in January 2010 sought to reassure the EU that America has not forgotten them. The Obama administration favours a strong, cohesive, integrated Europe which will be capable of working together with the United States on key global issues.

Transatlantic issues: The predominating security concern

A key international issue for cooperation, according to the US, is global security and consecutive burden sharing. Traditionally the EU lacks a strong cohesive, capable military. This is evidenced by the debacle in the Balkans and the continued struggle to maintain order there. In the American view, if the EU seeks to secure for itself a greater role as a global leader, it must be able to take care of security in its own backyard and elsewhere.

An integral component in contemporary global security is counterterrorism efforts. The European Parliament will soon vote on whether or not to back a data transfer bill which allows the US access to SWIFT transfers for the tracking of terrorist activities. This flow of information is essential to US counterterrorism activities but is seen by many EU politicians as a breach of privacy. This type of resistance fuels the American perception that the EU does not take terrorism seriously enough. The lack of EU support for additional troops in Afghanistan despite earlier pledges after 9/11 also adds to this discord.

The EU in the US Media

The American media is dominated by domestic news especially now in the context of economic crisis. On the occasion that international news makes it into the press, the Middle East (especially Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan) or Asia (India and China) are increasingly top stories rather than the European Union. The fact that the EU is a relatively minor player in the international theatre makes this phenomenon even more pronounced. Indicative of this trend is also the fact that the White House’s official foreign policy site includes Afghanistan, Iraq, US-China economic cooperation, and nuclear proliferation with barely a mention of the EU.

The Lisbon Treaty and the future of perceptions

The Lisbon Treaty’s provision for a semi-permanent president of the Council seems to be the EU"s answer to Henry Kissinger’s plea for a phone number to call Europe. Though responsible for some initial confusion during the transition period, the Lisbon Treaty is a potential source for ameliorated EU-US relations and also does something to affect future US perceptions toward the EU. The Lisbon Treaty corrects an important flaw (in the eyes of Americans), the rotating presidency, which is found baffling by US politicians. However, Washington views the new appointees to the positions created by the treaty, Catherine Ashton and Herman Van Rompuy, as odd choices, or even a contradiction of the ambition for an EU that is trying to increase its visibility and coherence. The treaty was meant to “rationalise Europe’s foreign-policy structures” but so far has failed to do so in the eyes of the US.


The transatlantic relationship has evolved from an asymmetric protector-protected relationship during the Cold War to more of a politics of interest approach where the EU desires to be recognized as an equal actor with the US on the international stage. The US currently perceives the EU as obsessed with symbols and pageantry rather than substance and results, as not taking security issues seriously enough, and as a minor actor relative to other international players. The complete affect the recent ratification of the Lisbon Treaty remains to be determined. It is clearly too early to assess the quality of EU-US relationships, due to the profound transitions both here and there in government.


Devon Weidemann, MA in International Relations from the University of Kent, Ifri Brussels