PARIS – French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel brushed off President Barack Obama's decision not to attend an annual summit with European leaders while stressing Thursday the importance of Russia as a European partner.
A U.S. State Department deputy briefing reporters made the announcement Monday that Obama would miss the EU-U.S. summit in May that will take place in Spain, which now holds the rotating EU presidency.
Since then, European media have been awash with commentary wondering what the White House's snub means for Europe as it struggles to find a united voice in foreign affairs following the creation of the new posts of EU president and foreign minister.
"With the United States, I don't understand the debate," Sarkozy told a news conference with Merkel after a joint meeting of the entire French and German governments in Paris.
"Where is the drama? Is that our only problem in the world today?" he continued.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also expressed understanding Thursday for Obama's decision, telling a meeting of the Atlantic Council in Washington that European leaders "do not think he has lost interest in the EU."
Obama already had miffed Merkel by skipping the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, and she was more taciturn. She said that along with Sarkozy and other EU leaders, she would discuss the issue at an informal summit in Brussels next week.
Sarkozy indicated that Obama might choose to meet with European leaders in the fall when the U.S. president would be expected to attend the annual NATO leaders summit which this year is in Portugal — a combined solution the French leader said was a "rather good idea."
"If the summit is in November instead of May, it truly doesn't matter. My feeling is that there are too many summits. There are too many trips. There is too much time lost," Sarkozy said.
Zapatero, who spoke briefly with Obama earlier Thursday echoed that idea, indicating the timing of the next summit would be based on "content" and not a specific date.
"We will be holding an EU-U.S. summit when the agenda so allows," Zapatero said. "By that I do not mean dates, I mean the content."
The U.S. leader traveled to Europe half a dozen times last year and met European leaders at other international venues, including at the United Nations.
Sarkozy and Merkel stressed the importance of their relationship with Russia. Both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are scheduled to visit France in coming months.
The French leader said that he wanted France and Germany to be in total harmony regarding relations with Russia, while Merkel said Russia's relationship with Europe was a "central question."
"We have to end the Cold War," she said.
Sarkozy and Merkel were meeting for the first time with their entire governments since the German leader's re-election. They outlined a roadmap for bilateral relations until 2020, aiming to strengthen their joint leadership role in Europe.
Most of the proposals concerned economy, education, climate change, civil affairs and immigration. The two countries pledged greater cooperation on Afghanistan, fighting nuclear proliferation and transatlantic security.
Concerning the biggest issue of the day, however, the fate of the financing of the A400M military transport plane that is over budget and behind schedule, both leaders said only that a solution would be found.