As long as Europe fails to present a unified foreign policy, the United States won’t take it seriously.

Many Europeans might consider Barack Obama’s decision to decline taking part in the European-American summit in Spain this spring an insult. From the point of view of a U.S. president under such pressure, however, it’s understandable. May in Madrid might be a pleasant prospect, but other than the photo opportunities, the trip doesn’t hold much promise of anything else. In other words, the U.S. president would be just wasting his time by attending the summit.

But to the EU, the snub comes as a slap in the face: Long faces in Brussels and anger in Madrid, home of the EU’s current leader. It’s a huge scandal. Europeans couldn’t be told in clearer terms just exactly where they stand in Obama’s international hierarchy — on the margins. The U.S. president long ago shifted his foreign policy focus to other regions, such as Asia, for example.

It’s no secret. Obama has made that point clear on several occasions but Europe’s leaders are apparently in denial. And instead of asking for reasons, they take it personally, always reacting resentfully toward their “big brother.” The trans-Atlantic partnership is something really special, so Europeans have a right to a privileged position. At least that’s their perception. The subtext to that perception: It’s more about the partnership itself and not necessarily about what partnership entails. The best example is the regular EU-U.S. summits that produce little more than declarations of good will and friendship.

And that’s precisely what apparently gets on Obama’s nerves. The European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank, came to the conclusion that “Washington is disappointed in Europe and perceives the EU member states as infantile; they’re far too immersed in trying to get attention while trying to duck their responsibilities at the same time.” That’s because Europe is not prepared to accept much responsibility for helping out in hotspots from the Middle East to the Hindu Kush. It’s also because while it may have 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, it has practically no influence over mission strategy there.

The problem lies, certainly, in the fact that Europeans have no common foreign policy save for words written on paper. While diplomatic declarations abound concerning the new, increasingly unified Europe, each individual European nation still maintains its own narrow and separate relationship with the United States.

And when it actually comes down to the EU as an entity as such, their competencies are not clearly defined. A clear symptom of that was the confusion surrounding the organization of the coming summit. Endless arguments were waged over whether the summit should be held in Brussels — where EU “foreign minister” Catherine Ashton is located — or in Madrid, capital of the country currently taking its turn as leader of the European Union. The impression imparted to the United States is that the EU is made up of a fractious and self-centered rabble.

At the same time, it may be assumed that a strong, self-confident Europe would be greeted with great interest in the USA. That’s apparent anytime the EU emerges unified and resolute as it has on matters of international trade; that causes America to take quick notice. Europe has to show that it’s capable of forming a consensus on complex matters, from how to treat the Dalai Lama to questions of Russia and the Middle East. When it comes to summits with the United States, it should be about getting down to business and not about the summit itself.

The conditions necessary to accomplish this are at hand. The Treaty of Lisbon now going into effect provides the basis for a unified European foreign policy. The United Kingdom’s Catherine Ashton has been nominated to represent Europe to the rest of the world. With that, it has to be made clear that the EU is a “supranational entity” and is far from being a United States of Europe. Regarding European foreign policy, the difficult task will be the search for a Europe-specific, diplomatic common denominator. In that endeavor, Catherine Ashton will never be Europe’s Hillary Clinton; at most she will succeed in being a good coordinator.

What is necessary is that European nations participate and are prepared to contribute their skills. Then perhaps, that trans-Atlantic relationship might grow to maturity.