‘United Europe’ Must Confront Terror, Migration, Obama Says

  • Obama announces 250 additional U.S. Special Forces to Syria
  • President chastises NATO members for low defense spending

Obama Delivers Message of Unity to European Leaders

President Barack Obama urged Europeans to hold together in the face of terrorism, upheaval in the Middle East and a migrant crisis, arguing that collective action is the only way for the continent to confront its challenges.

“If a unified peaceful, liberal, pluralistic, free-market Europe begins to doubt itself, begins to question the progress that’s been made over the last several decades, then we can’t expect the progress that’s just now taking hold in many places around the world will continue," Obama said in a speech at a trade fair in Hanover, Germany. "Instead we will be empowering those who argue that democracy can’t work."

He later met with the leaders of the U.K., France, Germany and Italy to discuss "the most urgent issues on the trans-Atlantic agenda," the White House said in a statement. The conversation, about two hours in length, covered the Syrian civil war and the European migrant crisis it has exacerbated, as well as political instability in Libya, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and a trade agreement between the U.S. and European Union. The governments involved announced no new policies or strategies afterward.

While Obama announced that the U.S. would deploy an additional 250 military personnel to Syria to intensify the fight against Islamic State, European leaders made no similar commitments, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the meeting.

Obama’s speech, at the Hannover Messe, a convention for makers and users of industrial equipment, was the bookend for a visit to Europe that saw Obama attempt to bolster longtime political allies facing tough domestic debates over national unity. 

Brexit, Migrants

In the U.K., Obama waded into an increasingly bitter referendum on whether to leave the European Union, urging voters to remain part of the group. In Germany, where Merkel has come under political strain after about 1 million refugees entered the country last year, Obama praised her leadership and morality.

On Monday, the president said the European Union was one of the greatest economic and political achievements in history.

“The United States and the entire world needs a strong and prosperous and democratic and united Europe," Obama said. "And perhaps you need an outsider, somebody who’s not a European, to remind you of the magnitude of what you have achieved."

Obama used the speech to announce the deployment of additional U.S. Special Forces personnel to Syria to augment the fight against Islamic State militants, and said he hoped other allies would increase their commitments to the conflict as the group loses territory.

“We need to do everything in our power to stop them,” Obama said. Europe has "sometimes been complacent about its own defense," he said, urging NATO members to all spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their militaries.

The U.S., the U.K., Greece, Estonia and Poland were the only NATO members which met that threshold in 2015, according to the alliance. Germany, the host for Obama’s speech, spent just 1.2 percent of GDP on defense.

Berlin Echoes

Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, described the Hanover remarks as also a bookend to Obama’s 2008 speech as a presidential candidate in Berlin, where he drew the largest crowd of his campaign and called for a return to collective multilateral action after the administration of President George W. Bush.

“The president is coming as the strongest ally of Europe to say we have complete confidence in Europe’s ability to confront these challenges,” Rhodes said.

Obama argued that his approach has been justified by the recovery from the financial crisis that began in 2007, the climate accord his administration struck in Paris last November, and the deal with Iran last year to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Those challenges may pale compared to Syria, where a five-year civil war has prompted a flood of migration to Europe and allowed the rise of Islamic State.

Disintegrating Cease-Fire

The move to increase U.S. Special Forces in Syria to a total of about 300 personnel comes as a fragile cease-fire in the civil war disintegrates, casting doubt on the possibility of a political solution to the conflict. That was the focus of the talks between Obama and the European leaders, Merkel said.

The limited force Obama is deploying allows him to maintain that he is refusing to insert substantial ground combat troops into the conflict and is instead bolstering training and assistance for local forces that have had success against Islamic State. The deployment comes about a week after Obama approved increasing U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and allowing them to move closer to the front lines of combat with Islamic State in that country.

Obama said the troops would not be "leading the fight on the ground."

"But they will be essential," he said, adding the forces would "keep up the momentum" against Islamic State.

The meeting with the European leaders will help shape the agenda for an upcoming NATO meeting in Warsaw, which will likely focus on the threat posed by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. In his speech, Obama said the U.S. and Europe should continue sanctions against Russia until the full implementation of an agreement signed in Minsk to wind down the Ukrainian civil war. The sanctions have proven unpopular in some corners of Europe where retaliatory trade moves by Russia have strained economies still recovering from the recession.

The White House said the European leaders agreed with Obama to maintain the sanctions until the Minsk agreements are "fully implemented."

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