On his final trip through Europe last week, U.S. President George W. Bush visited with all the most important people: Angela Merkel at Meseberg Castle, Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace, Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street. He dealt with the weightiest issues: Merkel supported Bush on enforcing sanctions in Iran; Silvio Berlusconi promised to keep supplying troops to Afghanistan.
But even Bush, long the bête noire of Europe, seemed to recognize that the days when he had the power to provoke awe or anger are already over. At the European Union summit, he praised the host nation Slovenia as "a slice of heaven" and joked that he was going to return as a tourist. "As you know, I'm close to retirement," said Bush, who leaves office in January.
Europe was looking past Bush even before he arrived. Gone were the scathing editorials and bitter antiwar protests that once drew 1 million people to the piazzas of Rome and 100,000 to the streets of London. Italian officials said there were no more than a 1,000 or so this time; British organizers expected less than 10,000. In Germany, there were only two dozen angry demonstrators in a village near the castle, their protest for higher farm subsidies aimed at Merkel, not Bush. "Even the demonstrators have lost interest in Bush," wrote Handelsblatt, a German business daily. "The overall mood will be one of good riddance," said The Guardian just before Bush arrived in London. Le Monde put it more gently: "Tourner la page Bush."
Now, it's all eyes on Barack Obama and John McCain. In February, as it became clear that Obama would be the Democratic front runner, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown reportedly asked the British ambassador to the United States to launch a charm offensive with the likely nominee. Labour Minister David Lammy—like Obama, a black Harvard alumnus—visited Wisconsin to observe the senator's campaign. Lammy speaks on the phone regularly with Obama and has since been described as his "point man in London." Both Brown and Tory leader David Cameron met with GOP nominee McCain, in London in March. A month later Brown met with both nominees in Washington. In Germany, Kurt Beck—the leader of the Social Democrats, the junior partner in the ruling coalition—even took the highly unusual step of endorsing Obama.
For his part, Berlusconi wanted Bush to help Italy secure a spot on the so-called five-plus-one—the group comprising the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, plus Germany—in exchange for more support in Afghanistan and Iraq and allowing the Americans to push ahead with plans to expand a military base in Vicenza, near Venice. But political analysts say the Italian prime minister—who frequently refers to himself as "George Bush's best friend"—is hoping this friendship will also signal to McCain and Obama that he is very pro-American. Perhaps neither will appreciate Berlusconi's unusual sense of humor quite the way Bush has, but analysts say Berlusconi is hoping his America-friendly policies on Iran and Afghanistan will put him on the next U.S. president's radar. "This will enhance Italy's stature once again," says Dennis Redmont of the Council for the United States and Italy. "That's something very dear to Berlusconi."
Nowhere is this shift past Bush more apparent than in Spain, conspicuously the one big west European nation that Bush failed to visit on his tour. Four years ago, when José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero took office as Spain's prime minister, his first major foreign-affairs decision was to withdraw Spanish soldiers from Iraq, a bold move that reversed his predecessor's pro-Bush policy and chilled relations between Madrid and the White House to arctic temperatures. Ever since, Zapatero's opponents have criticized him for alienating the most influential country on earth. But Spain seemed to manage just fine even without its erstwhile ally. Its economy boomed and now Zapatero, buoyed by his recent re-election, the struggles of the opposition party and the coming end of the Bush era, is moving from a domestic-heavy agenda toward a more international image—starting with the United States.
In the last two months, top Spanish officials have made two trips to talk with their U.S. counterparts, in addition to meeting with the foreign-policy advisers for McCain and Obama. While Bush is still persona non grata in Spain, in the last two weeks Zapatero has hosted in Madrid Democratic Party big shots John Edwards and Bill Richardson. The conversations focused on improving relations with Washington regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election in November. "U.S.-Spain relations could use a shot in the arm and these types of meetings can help," says Sean Carroll, at the Club de Madrid, a nonprofit that conducts democratic leadership projects.
Spain, the world's eighth largest economy, wants to offer the United States its political and economic influence in Latin America. Madrid hopes the two nations can cooperate to build on institutions like the Ibero-American summits, which can help increase stability and prosperity in the region. The post-Bush era could also spur Spain to become increasingly involved in the rest of the world. One high-ranking official says Zapatero's second term "will be defined by foreign policy," and the Spanish leader was scheduled this week to deliver a major speech outlining his agenda, which will include poverty alleviation and curbing illegal immigration, as well as closer relations with the United States. Zapatero's spokesman says Spain's reputation in the Arab world, following its withdrawal of soldiers from Iraq, would be a particular diplomatic asset.
Clearly, Zapatero is tired of being the odd one out. Spain clashed recently with the United States and most of its European allies when it refused to recognize Kosovo's independence. Unlike France and Germany, it supports Turkey's entrance into the EU. And Zapatero is a socialist in a region where the right seems to be increasing its power. "In Europe the political context is difficult because Zapatero is ideologically in the minority, surrounded by conservative governments in Germany, France and Italy," says José Ignacio Torreblanca, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
But what Zapatero—and, indeed, all Europe—needs is for Spain to cultivate strong relations with its neighbors so that the EU can speak with a unified voice on matters of global significance. "The White House doesn't want to talk to 27 countries," says Torreblanca. No matter who ends up living there.