BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union and the United States are likely to scrap plans to hold a summit in Madrid in May because U.S. President Barack Obama has decided not to attend, EU diplomats said on Tuesday.
Obama's decision is a new blow to the EU's hopes of boosting its global standing even though the president underlined the importance of relations with Spain and the 27-country bloc.
"The president is committed to a strong U.S.-EU partnership, and with Europe in general. There were no plans for the president to travel to Spain for a summit this spring," White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said.
A spokesman for the EU's executive, the European Commission, said efforts were still being made to agree a date for the summit. But EU diplomats said privately the May meeting would not take place without the U.S. president.
"If there is no Obama, there is no summit," one envoy said. "We will now have a period where we focus on substance -- on foreign affairs, energy security, climate matters -- and we will organize a new meeting at the highest level when the political situation and the agenda make it possible."
Failing to hold the summit is a diplomatic setback for the EU and Spain -- which had seen the meeting as a high point of its six-month EU presidency -- and for Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, who visits the United States this week.
New EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had signaled the importance Europe attaches to strengthening ties with the United States during talks in Washington last month, and the EU had hoped to have two summits this year with Obama.
Obama's decision was not totally unexpected because U.S. officials have indicated he will travel less as he concentrates on overturning political setbacks at home.
U.S. officials also pointed out that Obama visited Europe six times last year and met Zapatero twice in the past year.
The EU and the United States share many foreign policy goals such as preventing Iran developing nuclear arms, combating the global economic crisis, tackling climate change, and bringing security and stability to Iraq and Afghanistan.
But EU diplomats said Obama did not seem impressed by a meeting with EU leaders in Prague last June and some envoys said he sent a negative signal by not attending a lunch with EU leaders when they visited Washington in November.
"He does not always seem as interested in Europe as Europe is in the United States," said an EU diplomat.
His decision not to go to Madrid is a new blow to efforts to present the EU, which represents more than 500 million people, as a force that can counteract emerging powers such as China.
Those efforts have been marred by complaints of confusion over foreign policy as reforms are implemented under the European Union's Lisbon treaty, which went into force on December 1 and is intended to reinforce the EU's global image.
There is also some confusion over who will lead the EU at summits because it now has a long-term president, Herman Van Rompuy, as well as the foreign policy chief working alongside Zapatero and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
The EU's image has also not been helped by delays in appointing a new European Commission, which has important regulatory, legislative and policy-shaping powers.
It is due to be approved by the European Parliament next week, five months after Barroso secured a new five-year term.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
Additional reporting by Julien Toyer, Jihan Abdalla in Jerusalem, Jason Webb in Madrid and Jeff Mason in Washington