Last updated: February 2, 2010 9:54 am

EU summit suffers surprise White House blow

President Barack Obama will not attend a European Union-US summit to have been held in Spain in May, dealing a further blow to the EU’s attempts to be taken seriously as a coherent force in international affairs.

Philip Gordon, US assistant secretary of state for Europe, insisted that Washington was committed to good relations with both the EU and Spain, but the announcement will nevertheless be greeted with dismay in Madrid and disappointment in Brussels.

Diplomats in Brussels interpreted Mr Obama’s decision not as a snub to Spain, the current holder of the six-month rotating EU presidency under the union’s complicated constitutional arrangements, but rather as a signal to the EU as a whole that he was unwilling to cross the Atlantic to take part in summits that risked lacking substance.

One diplomat said Mr Obama had been “fairly unimpressed” with the results of an EU-US summit staged in Prague last year, when leaders of all 27 EU member states turned up to meet the president, eager to bask in his reflected glory.

His decision not to travel to Madrid is sure to disappoint European policymakers who a year ago had assumed that, with the Republican George W. Bush out of the White House, they would have a more sympathetic interlocutor in the form of the Democrat Mr Obama.

Mr Gordon said President Obama had “travelled more to Europe in his first year probably than any president has ever done in the past, and he looks forward to continuing this engagement bilaterally with European allies, and directly with the European Union”.

He added: “A trip to Spain for a summit was never on his agenda. He strongly values the bilateral relationship with Spain.”

With Spain suffering a deep economic recession more prolonged than those of its neighbours, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Socialist prime minister, had set great store by a visit from Mr Obama pencilled in for May 24 and 25.

But Spain’s six-month presidency has been overshadowed by the EU’s adoption of its Lisbon Treaty, which puts greater powers in the hands of a full-time president, currently Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, and the post of foreign policy chief now occupied by Baroness Ashton of the UK.

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