Is European Union on the decline?

THE 'MEEK' SHALL INHERIT THE EU: The newly appointed European Union President Herman Van Rompuy, centre, talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker at the European Council building in Brussels, on Nov. 19, 2009.. Photo: AP  

Henry Kissinger, always ready with an apt turn of phrase, once quipped: “if I want to speak to Europe, which number do I call?” Thirty-five years later, the European Union has made some progress, and there is now an EU President. The question today is a different one — who is this gentleman? How do you spell his name? Where exactly does he come from?

The election of a President is a step in the right direction, and will help to create a more perfect union. The same goes for an EU Foreign Minister. One cannot but wish them well. Yet, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this election is a prime exhibit as to why the EU has been declining. The choices made by the 27 heads of government reflect precisely what is wrong with Europe today, best summed up in the motto, “Think small, and carry a small stick.”

The notion that Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, the sum total of whose experience in prime time politics is a scarce 11 months in one of Europe’s smallest countries, could defeat Tony Blair, for 10 years British Prime Minister and the only Labour Prime Minister to win three elections in a row, is so counter-intuitive as to be numbing. I do think Mr. Blair made a serious mistake in Iraq, and I do have many misgivings about the intellectual cover he provided to President George Bush’s wrong-headed approach to the so-called “war on terror.”

But the fact remains that Mr. Blair is one of the great political figures of our time, a giant among the candidates for the EU presidency (a close contender was Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg; I am not making this up). Mr. Blair’s profile was also ideal for the job. A man from the centre-left, he gets along with the right — so much so that at one point both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw their weight behind him. He knows the United States well, and is widely respected there; he has recently launched his “Faith and Globalisation Initiative” with Yale University. He would have opened many doors in the Global South, where people know his incisiveness as a policy wonk, his eloquence as a communicator and his ability to get things done.

As a Brit, he could have been an honest broker between the two European heavyweights, France and Germany, while also considering the interests of smaller states. With Britain not being part of the Eurozone, Mr. Blair was also a compromise between the all-out federalists and the Euro-sceptics. In this age of fraught relationships between religion and politics, he is that rara avis in secular Britain — a politician who takes his religion seriously, so much so that he recently converted to Catholicism. At 56, he is still young, with plenty of energy and adrenaline for building up the EU. Mr. Blair was also available, something which cannot be said of another outstanding potential candidate, Felipe Gonzalez, former Prime Minister, who ruled Spain for 14 years.

Mr. Blair will thus continue to deploy most of his enormous talent as Middle East envoy, as well as at his Faith Foundation, his African Governance Initiative and at making obscene amounts of money at Tony Blair Associates — all endeavours which, though enough to keep a dozen men busy 24x7, still underutilise his capabilities.

Was the election of Mr. Van Rompuy merely a fluke?

Hardly, since his main competitors were mostly like him, unknown quantities from small member-states. In fact, one of them, when asked to come up with a job description for the new EU President, volunteered that what was needed was a chairman of the board rather than a president per se (he would, wouldn’t he?). But assuming that the European heads are so insecure as to be intimidated by the possibility of having a genuine peer at the helm of the EU, one could have thought that, at a very minimum, they would have settled for an experienced and knowledgeable EU Foreign Minister, in the tradition of Foreign Affairs EU Commissioners like Christopher Patten and Javier Solana. This position will, after all, be the face of the “new” post-Lisbon treaty Europe to the rest of the world.

Some of the names on the table certainly fitted that bill — Massimo D’Alema, the suave former Italian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister; Joschka Fischer, the brash, Green former German Foreign Minister; David Miliband, the brainy U.K. Foreign Secretary; and Carl Bildt, the experienced former Swedish Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister.

Any of these candidates would have sent the right message about the EU being genuinely interested in reaching out to the world, rather than being consumed by internal squabbling and petty infighting. The spectacle presented by a number of the EU’s smallest members — most prominently the Czech Republic’ s delay in giving the go-ahead for the EU Constitution, haggling over exemption from the EU rules, including compensation for property expropriation — has been such that outside observers find it difficult to take the EU seriously. The EU is the biggest market in the world, but its politics is all about divvying up the enormous amount of money on hand, rather than about anything else, “a supersize Switzerland,” as Simon Hix of the London School of Economics put it.

Most people had never heard of Lady Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, currently EU Trade Commissioner (a position she has held for a little over a year), who has now been chosen next EU Foreign Minister. She is a protégé of Prime Minster Gordon Brown, who tipped her for the job once David Miliband declined. She may very well be talented, and is apparently an effective negotiator, but no one claims that she has any foreign policy experience. The lack of name recognition and of foreign policy credentials does not bode well. This is the person President Barack Obama is supposed to call when addressing a U.S.-EU issue (will he?). This is not her fault. The “lowest-common-denominator” decision-making process the EU has adopted feeds on itself. Once you elect an obscure EU President, you may not be willing to put a star next to him as Number 2 (or such a nominee may not be willing to take it), so you keep going down the ladder.

Who should be blamed for this? Why is it that the great promise of European regional integration, one that raised so many hopes around the world and has been so widely emulated, has boiled down to this? Why is it that institutions that have taken eight years to build at great cost — whose very purpose, in Valery Giscard D’ Estaing original design for a European Constitution, was to allow the EU to project itself more effectively on the global scene — are handed over to newcomers whose appointment signals that the intention is to keep Brussels in the hands of Eurocrats (it has been said the real winner of all this is EU Commission chairman Jose Manuel Barroso) rather than established political leaders? Aren’t Europeans aware that the first incumbent of any senior political office sets the tone and pattern of how the powers of that office will be exercised long after he or she is gone?

It is easy to blame the small European countries, always worried about being trampled by the EU “elephants.” Yet, they can hardly be faulted for defending their interests. The British Tories, in Opposition and true to form, took the lead in opposing Mr. Blair’s candidacy, though their leader, David Cameron, has largely modelled himself after Mr. Blair, and his party fully supported the Iraq war. Saying the election of the latter by the EU would be “a hostile act,” the Tories are already showing how they are likely to rule — with the fiercest and narrowest of partisanships.

Yet, in the end, it would be silly to blame the bit players for this outcome in the Great Game of Europe, though it is somewhat puzzling to read an editorial in the Financial Times lamenting the EU’s small-mindedness and “minimalism,” when the same paper editorialised against Mr. Blair’s candidacy (“Beware of what you wish for…”). The EU was originally born out of the need of France and Germany to bury the hatchet of war. When all is said and done, it is still Paris and Berlin that call the shots. Unfortunately, on this occasion the successors of General Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer did not show either the grand vision or the fortitude of their predecessors. They let themselves be intimidated when they should have stuck to their guns. Europe is all the worse for it.

(Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, is Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario.)

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