Having demanded for years now that the U.S. close its controversial military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Europe suddenly finds itself in the uncomfortable position of getting what it asked for.

Now that Barack Obama has ordered that Gitmo be shuttered within a year, the question becomes: where do the remaining 240 or so remaining detainees end up? That's where Europe comes in.


In 2007, protestors around the world marked the fifth anniversary of Guantanamo's opening by holding demonstrations like this one outside the U.S. Embassy in London. (Associated Press) ((Matt Dunham/Associated Press))

The new administration in Washington has quietly broached the idea of transferring some detainees to other prisons, including some in Europe. Not that these prisoners are European citizens necessarily. It's more of a help-a-friend initiative.

It is a friend that Europe is eager please. By and large, the European community is very happy to have an avowed multilateralist in the White House who cares about what the EU countries have to say.

When European foreign ministers met to discuss the American request, Finland's Alexander Stubb said the European Union needed to "shake hands" with the United States.

And yet none of the 27 countries, said the Czech Republic's foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, are "very hot" on taking inmates from Guantanamo.

The issue of the detention facility in Cuba is often viewed as an early litmus test of Europe's willingness to work seriously with the new administration. And it may well be put to that test as early as April when Obama heads to Strasbourg, in France, to meet the other heads of NATO.

The Swiss are willing

Though not a member of the European Union, Switzerland is the only country in continental Europe that has clearly indicated it will take inmates if asked.

Portugal may as well. It has been a strong advocate for all EU nations to help share the responsibility.

But other, even traditional trans-Atlantic allies are hesitant. Britain argues it has already done its bit, having taken back nine UK citizens from Guantanamo during the Bush years. It has also made plans to accommodate six more.

But many European nations see this as an exclusively American problem: it is their mess, let them clean it up, has been the attitude.

What is clear at the moment is that there is no immediate response to the Obama request.

No further risk

The new president has bought himself six months with a task force, headed by his attorney general and secretary of defence, to look into the mechanics of closing the facility and transferring those remaining detainees, some of whom have been held for years without trial or full legal rights.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Spain's Javier Solana, has argued that no state should move until the Americans get their files in order and demonstrate that the detainees pose no further security risk. That itself may prove a controversial hurdle.

Another is that transferring these detainees to a regular civilian prison would likely bring them under a state's legal system, with all the rights — access to lawyers, files and habeas corpus — that any detained citizen would have.

Dozens of detainees have already been released, deemed not to be a danger. Two of them, however, have recently appeared in a jihadist video claiming they are now senior members of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Taking in former detainees is likely just the first of the big "asks" to come from the new U.S. administration.

At the NATO summit, Obama is widely expected to ask European nations to send more troops to Afghanistan. (He may well see big infusions from Britain, France and Germany.)

More difficult issues like a possible tightening of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program may well follow.