American President’s whirlwind visit to Belgium could not have been more timely as the Crimea crisis rumbles on. But it was to mark another conflict that Obama visited the Flanders Field Cemetery in Waregem, in the company of Belgium’s King Philippe and Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.
One Waregem local said on the radio that he had brought his camera because his sister didn’t believe him that Obama was in town. To his disappointment, few caught a glimpse of the President since an air- tight security cordon encircled the cemetery, the only place in Belgium to house the remains of American soldiers who fought in the First World War.
Obama said he would never forget the occasion and praised the relationship between Belgium and the US. In turn, Di Rupo echoed his thoughts and made it clear that the allies would ensure that no borders would be interfered with him, in a not-so-veiled reference to Russia’s plans in Crimea and beyond.
Others hoped to catch sight of him outside his hotel in the Louise district, but the estimated €10m security operation has clearly been well spent. One local man said: “We’ve been here for two hours waiting – he could at least have said bonjour.”
It was the turn of the European district to be locked down as he arrived for a summit lunch meeting with EU leaders, Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, both of whom will leave their posts at the end of the year. In the only speech of the European tour, Obama addressed 2,000 young people in BOZAR, the arts centre in central Brussels, an opportunity to speak about the importance of European security, the importance of not just the danger to the people of Ukraine but the danger to the international system that Europe and the United States have invested so much in.
Then the impressive cavalcade headed for potentially the most significant meeting of the day with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Dane who heads the Nato alliance, which is planning to send air reinforcements to Poland and the three Baltic states, all Nato and EU members. “There’s no question that Nato is prepared to defend any ally against any aggression,” said a senior US official. Obama said: “The world is a safer place when Europe and America are in solidarity.”
Locals were encouraged not to drive today but many did, with some suffering a one-a-half-hour delay in traffic. Many may well breathe a sigh of relief when Obama heads off for his next stop, Rome. But because of the Crimea crisis, we get to do it all over again – he is back in June for a meeting with G7 leaders because the US and Europe have frozen Russia’s membership of the G8 and called off a June G8 summit in Sochi in Russia.
American presidents are like buses – you wait for five years for one to come and you get two in a matter of months.