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Sunday, 20 July 2008

By Shadaba Islam

BRUSSELS: This column should really be about the decision by Yves Leterme, Belgium's prime minister, to tender his resignation, thereby plunging his country into another political crisis.

After all, this correspondent is based in Brussels and the future of Belgium — its very survival — is, once again, at stake.
 
Or is it? Frankly, we've been there, done that. Another column about the infighting between Belgium's French- and Dutch-speaking communities would be boring and repetitive. Belgian political crises have a tendency to go on and on. And this latest government resignation had been expected for several months. As a close Belgian friend warned me earlier this year, "It's going to be hot, hot, hot this summer."
 
Politically speaking, it's proving to be a cold and rainy summer. July seems like autumn as fog and drizzle envelope most of Europe in their cold embrace. Most inhabitants of Brussels and other northern European capitals are rushing off to warmer and summer climes.
 
No, it's not troubled little Belgium that is making the news. Instead, headlines across the European Union focus on the imminent arrival in Europe of Barack Obama, the charismatic Democratic senator from Illinois who could be the next US president and who for the last few exciting months has set European pulses racing.
 
Starved of star-quality leaders at home, a majority of ordinary Europeans are caught up in what newspapers describe as unbridled 'Obamamania'. There's no doubt, say specialists, that if Europeans could vote Obama's election as the next US president would be a shoe-in. Polls reveal that if they could vote in the US, between 53 per cent and 72 per cent of the British, French and German public would pull the lever for Obama.
 
"If Britons elected American presidents, Barack Obama would have no worries," said a recent editorial in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
 
And small wonder why. Europe's current crop of leaders is a sorry bunch. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is widely derided as a showman whose only claim to fame at the moment is his glamorous singer/model wife. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's public approval ratings remain low — despite his recent attempt to portray himself as a brooding Heathcliff. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi continues to prompt exasperation across Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is respected but not seen as inspiring as is Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero.
 
Obama, in contrast, inspires and shines — and will get an enthusiastic reception in London, Berlin and Paris, the three capitals selected for his European tour. Hungry for glamour and glitz, Europeans admire Obama's stand on combating global warming and his early opposition to the Iraq war. Many are also tired of the Bush administration's hard-line policies and cannot wait for the young senator to take charge.
 
Obama will begin his visit to Europe in Berlin, a city rebuilt with American money after World War II, with its very unity a living symbol of shared US and European endeavour in the Cold War. His visit will draw comparisons to the fabled visit to Berlin in 1963 of President John F. Kennedy, to whom Obama is often compared by supporters who see him also as a leader at the intersection of hope and history.
 
The Berlin visit has already become controversial, however, after Obama's team apparently looked into the possibility of speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, the backdrop for another famous presidential visit, Ronald Reagan's in 1987. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly baulked at the idea of a US campaign rally being staged at such a potent national symbol, considering it inappropriate.
 
Obama is expected also to make a short trip to Paris on July 25, for talks with Nicolas Sarkozy, and will wrap up his swing by meeting Britain's Gordon Brown.
 
The trip is being hailed in Europe as proof that the young senator is committed to upgrading the battered transatlantic relationship. However, while they are clearly hoping that some of Obama's charisma will rub off on them, Brown, Merkel and perhaps even the less cautious Sarkozy will be careful not to seem to be promoting Obama's candidacy.
 
After all, the elections are still almost four months away, and although the polls show Obama ahead Europe's top leaders do not want to be seen to be putting their eggs in one basket.
 
Obama too will be eager to prove that he will not be 'soft' on Europe. The would-be US president will demand that Europeans boost forces in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, thereby matching his own plan to send two more brigades (10,000 troops) to Afghanistan. He will also insist that Europeans send their soldiers to Afghanistan's volatile east and south, a message that Germans in particular are unlikely to view with favour.
 
The senator's tough talking on free trade has also worried many in Europe who fear that the US may be turning protectionist and is losing interest in concluding the floundering Doha round of trade talks.
 
On other issues the visit should prove more pleasant, however. Obama is more fully committed than President Bush to curtailing America's greenhouse gas emissions, a subject close to Europeans' hearts.
 
Obama also has to be wary of not being seen as too pro-European. "To be seen as Europe's pet is the last thing a presidential candidate needs — especially one who wants to shed his elitist image with white working-class American voters," the Guardian warned.
 
While enthusiastic about Obama and the prospect of a more harmonious relationship with the US, EU policymakers note with regret that the senator's European tour does not include a visit to Brussels and a tête-à-tête with key EU leaders, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
 
By excluding Brussels from his itinerary, many fear that Obama may be signalling that he prefers to deal with national European capitals rather than the EU itself — a move that is out of step with the EU's increasing power and clout in both European and international affairs.
 
Or perhaps the Democratic presidential hopeful was merely advised by wary aides to steer clear of any controversial involvement in Belgium's tedious French and Flemish dispute.
The writer is Dawn's correspondent in Brussels.

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