Impressive Van Rompuy speech sets out Europe’s challenges

The most important speech delivered in Europe last week came from Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s full-time president.  It had real depth and did not try to conceal the EU’s problems behind a mask of unconvincing optimism.

The speech addressed how to strengthen Europe’s role in a world in which the Old Continent appears in danger of slipping into faster relative decline unless it gets its act together.  The speech had much to say about economic policy, but it was the foreign policy content that was more original.  This was Van Rompuy’s first detailed exposition of his views on the subject.

A little to my surprise, he did not paint a superficial picture of an ever more united European foreign policy founded on peace, multilateralism and large dollops of development aid.  “The more the Union deals with foreign affairs, in the coming decade, the more certain differences in attitude between member-states will rise to the surface.  History and geography play an important role in foreign policy…  It is about having historic ties with certain regions in the world, or about being an island versus sharing a border with Russia.  Such differences are real and will not go away like that,” he said.

Nevertheless, he pointed out, no single European country has the power these days to play a decisive world role on its own.  The Europeans must work together as much as they can.  Van Rompuy proposed two ways to do this.  First, to develop global economic governance in the form of the G20 group of leading industrialised and emerging nations.  Second, to strengthen EU ties with the world’s strongest powers, starting with the US but also including Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan and Russia.

As he observed, this strategy will require some hard choices.  He hinted that the 16-nation eurozone ought to have a single representation in the International Monetary Fund – a reform not easy for Germany or France to swallow.  (Van Rompuy did not, by the way, offer to withdraw his idea that he himself should attend G20 summits – an arrangement that would mean Europe was merely gaining one more seat at a table where non-Europeans already think it is over-represented!)

If the speech ducked one issue, it was US perceptions of Europe’s military and strategic world role.  Van Rompuy sounded a little glib when he said: “The attachment of our American friends to good transatlantic relations will remain.  In spite of current impressions, it will only get stronger in the coming years.”

Well, one hopes so.  But only two days before Van Rompuy spoke, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave an equally important speech in Washington in which he said the “demilitarisation of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st”.

Gates’s words should serve as a serious wake-up call for the Europeans.  One can also mention President Barack Obama’s decision not to visit Europe for a EU-US summit in May, and the scenes last December at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, when the Europeans were excluded from the final set of negotiations among the US and several other countries.

Van Rompuy’s speech was very good – far more weighty and thoughtful than anything produced so far by the speechwriters of Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief.  Sooner rather than later, I’d like to hear him give another address on the EU’s long-term relationship with the US.