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Obama's farewell European tour aims to calm nervous allies

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (L) welcomes US President Barack Obama before their meeting in Athens on November 15, 2016.
Aris Messinis | Reuters
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (L) welcomes US President Barack Obama before their meeting in Athens on November 15, 2016.

On Tuesday, as the world begins to recover from the election of Donald Trump, the outgoing President Barack Obama is visiting Greece in his last overseas tour as U.S. president.

During his meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos at the Presidential Palace in Athens, the U.S. president thanked his Greek counterpart and the Greek people on their hospitality and partnership. He reiterated the strong ties between the two countries, adding the need for a collaborative effort by all on the refugee crisis. He underlined his commitment to offering assistance to Greece on the economic crisis, adding, however, that more work lay ahead on the economic front in order for Greece to exit the current crisis.

Without mentioning Trump by name, Obama told Pavlopoulos that a strong NATO is of "utmost importance" and would provide "significant continuity even as we see a transition in government in the United States."

On his part, Pavlopoulos expressed his gratitude to Obama for the solidarity on the humanitarian crisis, adding his belief that President-elect Donald Trump would continue on a similar path. Commenting on the Cypriot problem, Pavlopoulos underlined that a fast solution was necessary, based on international law. He added that challenging the Lausanne Treaty was unacceptable, referring to recent provocative statements by the Turkish leader Recep Erdogan.

Obama met subsequently with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. In this meeting, he congratulated the Greek government and the Greek people for moving forward through a very challenging process. "My hope is that given the growth we saw this year, we can build on the process. The reforms have not been easy, but have been necessary to boost the competitiveness of the economy. ... I will continue to emphasize on our view that austerity alone cannot deliver prosperity," he said, adding that he would continue to stress to Greece's European partners that austerity alone will not help the country emerge from crisis and that debt relief is necessary along with reforms. "It is going to be important both with respect to debt relief and other strategies to help Greek people in this period of adjustment," he said.

Tsipras said he hopes Obama's last trip to Europe brings about important results. "It is a great honor that you are visiting Greece during your final Europe tour to give a special message to the world," he told Obama. While referring to the economic crisis, he said that "despite the difficulties over the last five years, we're standing strong."

President Obama is accompanied by U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, senior director for European affairs Charles Kupchan and the new U.S. ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey R. Pyatt.

Initially, Obama planned to deliver a public speech on Wednesday from the Pnyx, a rocky hill beneath the Acropolis; however, it has been rescheduled to take place at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, due to security concerns. The initial setting was highly symbolic, as the hill in the center of the Greek capital hosted popular assemblies in the ancient times and is regarded as one of the most important sites in the evolution of democracy.

White House officials revealed that Obama is planning to execute a "legacy speech" from Athens, comparing it to the one John F. Kennedy delivered in Berlin on June 26, 1963 (Kennedy aimed to underline the support of the United States for West Germany 22 months after Soviet-supported East Germany erected the Berlin Wall).

Obama will be covering an array of topics in his speech — from the refugee crisis and ongoing Cyprus peace talks to the need for continued debt relief and structural reform.

Following Greece, Obama will visit Germany on Nov. 17 and 18, where he will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel to review the close cooperation on a wide range of bilateral, regional and trans-Atlantic issues.

Among the issues on the agenda will be the common efforts to resolve the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL, as well as transatlantic economic relations. This visit will mark Obama's sixth visit to Germany, reflecting the strategic importance of the partnership with Germany and the close ties between the American and German people. The president will also have one last opportunity to meet with his "Quint" counterparts, the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom and review a range of global issues.

This visit to Germany will undoubtedly be overshadowed by the recent electoral triumph of Trump. According to Heather Conley, a Europe scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the outgoing president's tour was originally planned when it appeared that Hillary Clinton was to win the election, with the aim being to reassure world leaders that the United States had regained its footing after toxic election campaign that caused concern across the world. Trump's win, however, will now undoubtedly dominate talks in Europe.

Recent comments from the president-elect, suggesting that the United States might pull out of NATO if the other members do not contribute more, have understandably ruffled some feathers. German political leaders warned that Trump's electoral victory threatens to fuel popular revolts across Europe. The country's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble urged Europe's political, business and social elites to learn from the Republican's shock victory and better understand the public concerns that swept him into the White House.

"Demagogic populism is not only a problem in America. Elsewhere in the West, too, the political debate is in an alarming state," Schäuble told the Bild daily news.

For Obama, this farewell tour to Europe is an opportunity to reassure his nervous allies that his successor in the White House will not be as bad as they may fear. With the nuclear deal with Iran and the Trans-Pacific Partnership potentially at risk, and the conflict in Syria and Iraq at a critical point, this task may be far more Herculean than he imagined and most likely not the way he expected to spend his final visit to Europe as Head of State.

— By Nasos Koukakis, special to CNBC.com