December 1, 2009
Today, two obscure figures will take to the highest posts in the new European Council: Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as president and EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton as high representative for foreign policy. The positions, created by the Lisbon Treaty after eight long years of wrangling within the European Union, were highly heralded and meant to give Europe a powerful unified voice on the world stage. But the selection of Van Rompuy and Ashton by European leaders was met with derision — or, worse, yawns — on both sides of the Atlantic.
The choices baffled most Europeans and bemused most everybody. The Economist‘s Charlemagne exclaimed “a decade of institutional wrangling for that?” Others described them as “Europe’s gray mice,” the “bland leading the bland,” or “the EU’s perfect couple of nobodies.” Writing for the Irish Times, former EU Commissioner Chris Patten argued that the selections “surely [underline] the extent to which member states are in the driver’s seat in the EU,” signaling that it “is no superstate striding bravely into a bright new dawn.” I joined in the fun too, on the Atlantic Council’s blog, concluding that the Van Rompuy decision would “virtually assure that the EU president remains largely a figurehead, subservient to the heads of the member countries.”
The reaction, alternately disappointed and chuckling, is understandable. After all, Europe had the opportunity to select a vigorous leader, like Tony Blair, who could stand shoulder to shoulder with leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama and finally provide that phone number in Europe Henry Kissinger sought three decades ago. Instead, we get what EurActiv’s Rick Zednik has jokingly termed the dawn of “the Obama-Van Rompuy era.”
But though the disappointment over what might have been is perfectly understandable, we should not lose sight of what is.
Many had hoped for a kind of European George Washington — a commanding figure who would shape the presidency in his own image and lead a strongly unified country. But Europe is not the United States. The more apt comparison might be (as one of my blog commenters pointed out) to Samuel Huntington, the first president under the Articles of Confederation.
Europe has its own parliament, its own flag, its own currency, and a new president. But it’s not even a confederation, much less a country. The three traditional major powers — Britain, France, and Germany — carry outsize influence over the 20-plus lesser actors. The countries in the EU retain, and want, a definite degree of autonomy. Thus, the EU is, in essence, a glorified free-trade zone.
Given that, did anyone seriously expect the Brits to back a powerful European president when they won’t even give up the pound and join the Eurozone? For that matter, how could the French and Germans have backed Blair when his country remains strongly Euroskeptic?
Recall, too, that the Lisbon Treaty was a backdoor solution created by EU bureaucrats frustrated with years of failure to advance the cause of Europe through the front door of national referendums. It was the EU Constitution by another name. With Lisbon, most member states could simply rubber-stamp the agreement in their legislatures. The sole exception was Ireland, which promptly defeated the measure in a referendum. It took a global financial crisis, major arm-twisting, and some light bribery to get the Irish to change their mind.
After the Van Rompuy-Ashton selection, many critics pointed out that the powers of the new president were incredibly vague. But that was by design, not incompetence. There’s simply no consensus on what “Europe” should do beyond the realm of trade and financial policy. And while Ashton is not well-known outside the EU’s inner circles, the Powers That Be have every reason to be confident that she’ll execute that consensus from her new perch.
Thus, though we’re a long way from the day when the world’s two dominant economies will be able to conduct foreign policy as unitary equals, the degree to which “Europe” is a reality now would have been a wild fantasy 20 years ago, let alone 40 or 60.
The Germans, French, and Brits have spent an unprecedented 64 years without going to war against one another. That they have also worked as part of a military alliance for six decades is truly remarkable. Just 20 years ago most of Europe — and not a few Americans — viewed a reunited Germany with dread. Instead of a threat, however, it has become an even better partner.
Who could have imagined, when the European Exchange Rate Mechanism nearly collapsed when several constituent members adopted predatory policies out of domestic interest, that it would not only survive but be replaced by a common currency in less than a decade? Let alone that the Germans would agree to move away from the vaunted deutsche mark to anchor said currency?
For that matter, it seems like just yesterday that France was resisting all manner of regulation from Brussels in an effort to try and preserve its culture and its family farms. Now, France is arguably the main cheerleader for a united Europe.
The Brits, of course, remain the main Euroskeptics among the major powers. Although no less a figure than Winston Churchill called for a “United States of Europe,” Britain has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into Europe. The EU predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, was formed in 1951; Britain reluctantly joined only in 1973, by which point the ECSC had morphed into the European Communities. Yet, though the Brits continue to worry over their sovereignty more than most — a tradition likely to continue with their election of radically Euroskeptic parties in the recent elections — they’re nonetheless slowly seeing the value of the project. And Blair was a candidate for president while Ashton won the high commissioner post.
The recent choice to go with low-profile leaders likely means slower progress than some of us might have wished for, but the very fact that these new offices exist is progress. The Atlantic Council’s Borut Grgic has argued persuasively that Ashton can help fix EU foreign policy, helping forge consensus on a whole range of thorny issues from the Balkans to Russia.
It has been 48 long years since the Europe project kicked off. We’re a long way from a United States of Europe, but then again the founders of the United States declared independence in 1776 and didn’t win a true union until after the Civil War ended in 1865. If it takes Europe twice that long, it might still be worth the wait.