EU Foreign Ministers Discuss Obama Administration

European foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss how to work together with the Obama administration after eight years of chilly trans-Atlantic relations. One issue to decide is whether to accept detainees released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. After eight years of mostly chilly relations across the Atlantic, European foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels today to discuss how to work with the new American administration. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, Europeans are realizing it will be much harder to say no to President Obama than his predecessor.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: President Obama's inaugural speech was received enthusiastically throughout Europe. His world view is seen as long overdue. Addressing the French parliament, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon laid out what Europe is now demanding from the new administration.

Prime Minister FRANCOIS FILLON (France): (Through Translator) We expect President Obama to recognize that unilateralism has been a failure and that it must now give way to multilateralism.

POGGIOLI: Divided over the war in Iraq and feeling shunned by the Bush administration, European governments had begun to focus on their own national interests. But now with the sharp change of course in Washington, Europeans will have to adapt to that change. French political analyst Dominique Moisi imagines the first thing President Obama will tell Europeans.

Dr. DOMINIQUE MOISI (French Political Analyst): Well, I know you have voted massively for me. I thank you for that very deeply. Now, what will you do for me? Your votes in symbolic terms were great, but I need your actions in very concrete terms.

POGGIOLI: One dilemma will be whether to accept prisoners released from the Guantanamo prison whose closure was one of President Obama's first official acts. Just as it wants to present itself as a united partner, Europe is already sharply divided with many countries reluctant to accept any inmates. Another divisive issue will be the U.S. request that Europeans take on more responsibility for NATO operations in Afghanistan. Recent polls show the majority of European public opinion is opposed to taking on more of the cost and sending more troops there.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin says France has already sent enough troops to Afghanistan and is overstretched in missions from Kosovo to Africa. Countries such as Italy and Spain also have troops in other international missions such as Lebanon. And German political scientist Yan Tekow(ph) says the troop issue is particularly sensitive in Germany, which holds elections later this year.

Mr. YAN TEKOW (German Political Scientist): In Germany we have a very, very strong prevailing pacifist mood in the society, which makes it very, very difficult for any government to move on security issues, especially deploying troops - which is politically, it's a suicide issue for almost any politician.

POGGIOLI: NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has urged the allies to offer at least more development and reconstruction aid and finally fulfill their commitments in what are considered vital areas, such as Afghan police training. The area where there was perhaps the widest divergence between Europe and the Bush administration was how to deal with a newly assertive and oil-rich Russia. Lucio Caracciolo, editor of the Italian foreign policy journal Limes, says the Bush administration's major focus was the creation of a Western front to contain Russia.

Mr. LUCIO CARACCIOLO (Editor, Limes): This is exactly the opposite approach of Western Europe - say Germany, France, Italy, Spain - which have the best possible relations to Russia and which have built in the recent years a very strong interdependence as far as energy is concerned. So we have a clash of interests in this area.

POGGIOLI: The contrast came to a head at a NATO summit in Bucharest last year where for the first time in alliance history America was rebuffed. The allies resisted President Bush's pressure to grant NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, an expansion vehemently opposed by Moscow. Political scientist Yan Tekow says that in all of Europe, Germany has perhaps developed the closest relations with Russia.

Mr. TEKOW: The Eastern orientation was always very strong with Germany. This is why still today we're only partially a Western country. We have Eastern instincts, the only major country in Europe that has Eastern instincts. This is why Russia plays such an important role for us, also because we have business interests and security interests.

POGGIOLI: Europeans are looking to the new Obama administration with great expectations and a dose of anxiety. Commentators wonder whether the new president will be a multilateralist miracle worker or whether he'll focus exclusively on American national interests, forsaking a stronger partnership with Europe. In any case, the French daily Le Monde writes, President Obama's popularity in Europe is so great that European leaders will find it harder to turn down his requests. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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