Whether it’s climate change, foreign policy or the increasingly alarming fiscal crisis, the European Union’s difficulties can be summed up in one word: disunity. After December 1, when the EU’s Lisbon treaty came into force, disunity was supposed to be a thing of the past. Instead, disunity has proved to be very much a thing of the present. What’s more, the Lisbon treaty may – at least in the short term – be making matters worse.
Take the world conference on climate change at Copenhagen in December. According to Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s incoming climate change commissioner, disunity – in the sense of a cacophony of European voices – was an important factor behind the ability of other powers to brush aside the EU’s views. “Those last hours in Copenhagen, China, India, Japan, Russia and the US each spoke with one voice, while Europe spoke with many different voices. Sometimes we spend so much time agreeing with one another that when finally the EU comes to the international negotiations, we are almost unable to negotiate,” she told her confirmation hearing at the European Parliament last month.
Are they just teething problems? Or is something more serious at stake? One way or another, the first signs are emerging that the European Union’s new foreign policy structures, established under the Lisbon treaty that came into force last month, are capable of producing just as much discord and disharmony as the old arrangements.
Let’s take the EU’s response to the Haiti earthquake. Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, convened an emergency meeting on January 18 at which the 27-nation bloc quickly and efficiently agreed a generous aid package for Haiti worth over 400 million euros. At a news conference after the meeting, she was asked if she would be visiting Haiti and, if not, why not. She replied that she wouldn’t be going, because the United Nations had requested her and other foreign dignitaries to stay away in order not to disrupt the emergency aid effort. However, Karel De Gucht, the EU’s outgoing humanitarian aid commissioner, would travel to Haiti. A perfectly sensible response.
How many days can a Spanish kite stay in the air? About four, to judge from the speed with which Germany and the UK have shot down a proposal from José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s prime minister, to introduce binding mechanisms to enforce economic reform in the European Union.
The short lifespan of Zapatero’s brainwave, which he unveiled last Thursday in Madrid, is hardly surprising. Not that it’s an especially bad idea – in principle. Deep in their hearts, most European policymakers know the EU would benefit from closer fiscal and economic policy co-ordination, particularly in the eurozone. They also know that the lesson from the EU’s ill-starred Lisbon agenda, which notoriously set out – and failed - to turn the bloc into the world’s most competitive economy by 2010, is that it was all too easy for governments to pay lip service to reform without doing much about it in practice (except for the virtuous Nordic countries).
What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union? With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.
What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously. Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries.
Seen from continental Europe, one of the biggest questions of 2010 concerns David Cameron, leader of the UK’s opposition Conservative party. The Tories are widely expected to win the forthcoming British election, but few European Union politicians can claim with confidence to know where he truly stands on the all-important matter of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
The lack of clarity isn’t helped by the Tories’ distant relationship with their fellow EU centre-right parties. I am in Bonn at a congress of the European People’s Party, the leading centre-right party group. Everyone who matters is here: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Herman Van Rompuy (the newly appointed full-time EU president)… Countries from Malta to Latvia and Georgia to Croatia are represented. But there are no Conservative party politicians at all here – not Cameron, not William Hague, his shadow foreign secretary, not Kenneth Clarke, the only authentically pro-EU voice in the shadow cabinet.
The inimitable Nicolas Sarkozy couldn’t resist the temptation to term last week’s allocation of jobs in the new European Commission as a victory for France and a defeat for Britain. In particular, the French president crowed, he had outmanoeuvred the Brits by securing the internal market portfolio, which is responsible for financial regulation, for Michel Barnier, the new French commissioner.
It was certainly a little undiplomatic for Sarkozy to uncork the metaphorical Champagne bottles so soon after the announcement of the new jobs. There are many raw nerves in the British government and in the City of London about how various EU measures in the pipeline may damage the UK’s financial sector. Sarkozy touched every one of those nerves with a rod of fire.
So it looks as if it is to be Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister, as the full-time president, and Catherine Ashton, Britain’s EU trade commissioner, as the foreign policy supremo. This is the culmination of eight years of efforts, starting with the EU’s Laeken Declaration of 2001, to reform the bloc’s institutions and give the EU a more dynamic world profile.
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, thinks the EU had a historic opportunity in its grasp and flunked it – at least as far as the full-time presidency is concerned. The British government itself was saying more or less the same thing until tonight. It was adamant that the EU needed a big-hitter as president to convince the rest of the world that the EU was going places. Now it has participated in a classic EU trade-off that has produced exactly the result it said would be no use to anyone.
My colleague Philippe Ricard wrote a fine piece in Monday’s Le Monde about the scarcity of women candidates for top positions in the European Union – not just the first full-time president and the new foreign policy high representative, but the next 27-member European Commission.
He made the point that if only a few women are nominated to the new Commission, the European Parliament is likely to cause real trouble when the nominees appear for their confirmation hearings, expected to start in December. The legislature does not have the legal authority to reject individual nominees, but in 2004 it demonstrated that it had the political strength to force their withdrawal when it torpedoed the appointment of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian conservative, as justice commissioner. Moreover, the parliament does have the legal power to reject the Commission in its entirety – the so-called “nuclear option”.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on Tuesday about how the European Union is going about the task of choosing its first full-time president and its next foreign policy high representative.
The longer our conversation progressed, the more I realised how damaging to editorial standards, not to mention the people’s understanding of politics and government, are the competitive pressures on modern news organisations to be ahead of the rest of the pack. For this particular EU story has, over the past few weeks, produced a cornucopia of nonsense as every broadcaster and newspaper has fallen over its rivals in a fruitless and fundamentally misguided attempt to show that it, and it alone, has got the lowdown.
The fuss over who will be the European Union’s first full-time president is obscuring the less sexy but potentially more important question of who will get the two or three most powerful jobs in the next European Commission. A good many governments would prefer to see one of their nationals in a truly influential economic policymaking role in the Commission than occupying the EU presidency, which may turn out to be a more hollow job than once foreseen.
Commission president José Manuel Barroso says he will not nominate his new team until EU leaders have chosen their new head of foreign policy, a post that entitles its holder to a Commission seat. Any country wanting a big economic portfolio at the Commission will therefore steer clear of putting forward a candidacy for the foreign policy job, because there is only one Commission seat for each nation.