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EU leaders play down Obama decision on summit

Source: Financial Times - Wed 3rd Feb 2010

European leaders yesterday sought to brush aside the decision by Barack Obama, the US president, not to travel to Spain in May for a summit with European Union heads of state.

The EU's relationship with the US was in good shape in spite of the move, according to Lady Ashton, the EU's new foreign policy supremo. "If I judge it primarily by the reception I got in Washington last month, then it's in good shape," she told the Financial Times in an interview. "It's warm, it's good."

Officials said on Monday Mr Obama had never intended to visit Madrid for the US-EU summit, partly because he had travelled to Europe so often in the first year of his presidency.

Nonetheless, some diplomats in Brussels said his decision had been influenced by his experience of an informal US-EU summit in Prague last April, when all the national leaders and other officials from the 27-country bloc turned up for an event that produced few substantial results.

In Madrid, the government played down Mr Obama's expected absence. "We all would have liked Obama to be here in Spain in May," José Blanco López, public works minister, said. "But maybe he will be here some other month."

Lady Ashton said she had known in advance of Mr Obama's decision because she had discussed the matter with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. "The issue for him was partly that he's coming to Lisbon in November for a Nato summit, so he was already visiting an Iberian country, and secondly that we'd had a summit with him not long ago. He's got a huge domestic agenda. We had already discussed the fact that there would need to be some rearranging of schedules."

Lady Ashton, a Briton who was appointed the EU's foreign policy high representative in November, said she was sure the US would not abandon its close ties with individual European countries even if it was eager for Europe to speak with a clear, collective voice. "The Americans have got strong bilateral relations with a number of member-states, and rightly so. When they want Europe to speak with a single voice, they're looking for somebody to represent that voice, and that is me."

Lady Ashton said she had detected much interest in Washington in how EU foreign policy would evolve now the bloc had adopted the Lisbon treaty.

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