Now we’ve got the proof: Herman Van Rompuy can’t stop the traffic in Washington DC. Worse still, at the nuclear security summit there on 12/13 April, he wasn’t even deemed worthy of a little tête-à-tête with Barack Obama, but just a handshake. Another occasion for Europeans to bewail their fate. First, Obama refused to attend the EU-US summit in Madrid this May. Then he did not invite a single EU representative to sign the START III treaty on nuclear disarmament last week in Prague. And now yet another slap in the face.

All the same, Europeans could try to see things differently: to this latest summit, the US president invited 46 representatives of various countries, the leaders of the United Nations and of the International Atomic Energy Agency – plus Herman Van Rompuy. So the latter was the only one there representing a regional bloc of countries, which is also an acknowledgment of the unique nature of the European Union. Nowhere else in the world has the integration of a group of states been as far-reaching and successful as here.

A summit, not a social function

But the summit was not a social function. Obama had business to take care of and had to make the most of the time allotted. So there was a clear-cut rationale behind the choice of bilateral meetings: Kazakhstan, South Africa and the Ukraine were rewarded for giving up their nuclear arsenal. Other countries, such as Turkey, Jordan, India and Pakistan, are directly concerned by conflicts in which the US is involved or mediating. And as for China, there are important differences to be resolved between Obama and his opposite number Hu Jintao regarding sanctions on Iran and devaluation of the Chinese currency. The EU, on the other hand, has a good, close working relationship with the US, and there are no major tensions between the two. But what hurt, of course, was that Obama personally received Angela Merkel and not the European "president". But there was a great deal of ground to be covered with the German chancellor: Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan and getting rid of tactical nuclear weapons in Germany.

Van Rompuy can only speak on the EU’s behalf if the European Council gives him a mandate. In other words, Van Rompuy has to lead the 27 heads of state to a consensus on the greatest possible number of issues. That will take time, and we mustn’t forget he’s only been in office for a hundred days. The Lisbon Treaty didn’t take effect till the 1st of December and the new institutions aren’t quite running smoothly yet. What’s more, the treaty is not exactly clarity incarnate. Even within the EU we’re still groping around because the purviews of the new posts are not clearly defined, the treaty is sometimes confusing and admits of conflicting interpretations. The rules on responsibility for nuclear matters are particularly vague. Some argue Van Rompuy does indeed have a mandate there, pointing to the Euratom Treaty and European nuclear security policy. Others feel we have yet to establish a shared view on the matter.

Enough clout to speak for EU, even without mandate

“Consequently, it’s not surprising that the Americans are looking to see which way the wind blows,” observes Professor Hendrik Vos at the University of Ghent. According to European diplomats working in Washington, the US government has not yet found its way through the new institutional constructs of the EU. So João Vale de Almeida, the new EU ambassador to the US, has his work cut out for him.

As Hendrik Vos puts it, Van Rompuy "has no legal mandate, but in his capacity as president of the European Council, the treaty stipulates that he represents the EU abroad. He’s got enough clout to speak for the Union, even without a mandate.” If at the end of his mandate, however, Van Rompuy still has to make do with a handshake from the US president and a brief public address instead of a private meeting, he will indeed have failed. And Europe will have to start worrying about how little importance Americans attach to good transatlantic relations.