On 1 January, two new key leaders of the European Union (EU)—the world’s largest economy with an estimated gross domestic product (in purchasing power parity) of nearly $15 trillion (Rs681 trillion)—formally assumed office. They are (drum roll please!), Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU’s council of ministers and (hold your breath!), Baroness Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy. If these names do not ring a bell, then you are in the same predicament as the 500 million odd EU citizens that these two individuals are supposed to represent.
These much anticipated positions were supposed to have been the crowning glory of the hard-fought Lisbon Treaty (that was defeated once and was barely resurrected in 2009) and to give the EU the political trapping that it sorely lacked to play a greater global role. Indeed, the permanent president of the council position should also have answered the sombre question Henry Kissinger posed to his European counterparts: What is the one number to call in Europe during a crisis?
However, the appointment of Rompuy and Ashton by the European Council, made up of the heads of state and government of the 27 member states of the EU, has done the European project a singular disservice. As Thierry Tardy, an expert on European affairs at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, notes: “The choice of these two has been a clear disappointment for anyone believing in the European project.”
Also Read W Pal Sidhu’s earlier columns
Although the European project began soon after the end of World War II with the establishment of the six-nation European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and the Treaty of Rome in 1957, it gained momentum after the end of the Cold War when the Treaty of Maastricht established the EU on 1 November 1993. Since then, the EU has built up all the trappings of a postmodern state which, according to EU ideologue Robert Cooper, has a “developed system for mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages”. Thus, having a president of the council and a high representative for foreign affairs and security was supposed to have been the culmination of this long and tedious process, which many analysts have likened to watching paint dry, but not as exciting.
In the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty, the 27 heads of state and government should have appointed or elected a president who would have been first among equals. Instead, they all agreed to go with someone who would be last among equals. Rompuy, the Prime Minister for the past year of tiny Belgium, with a population of 10 million, was probably selected because he has experience in managing a fractious coalition, but is not a particularly charismatic or well-known figure even in Europe. These characteristics suited leaders of some of the biggest and most powerful states in the EU (notably the UK, France and Germany) who do not want to share the limelight with (let alone take orders from) someone based in Brussels. However, if the president of the council is not going to be taken seriously by his European counterparts then what are the chances that he would be taken seriously by countries outside Europe, particularly China, India and the US?
Soon after he assumed office, the weak president’s position was further weakened when Spain assumed the rotating six-month presidency of the EU in January 2010. The practice of the rotating presidency should have ended with the creation of the new position of the president of the council and the appointment of Rompuy, but this has not stopped Madrid from going ahead and outlining an agenda as if it was business as usual.
Indeed, to the chagrin of many non-Europeans, including, no doubt, Kissinger, today the EU is represented by not one, but at least three leaders: Rompuy; Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission (whose distinction from the European Council continues to baffle even Europeans); and for the next six-months Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain. Worse, even this surfeit of formal leaders of the EU will not prevent individual countries, particularly England, France and Germany, from speaking on behalf of the EU when it suits them. Given Europe’s impressive economic and growing political and military clout, it could be an important actor in regional and global affairs. In this context, speaking with one voice rather than in a cacophony would be a distinct advantage.
Here, the Europeans might learn from the Indian political integration experience. Despite 28 diverse states (many of which are larger than the constituent states of the EU and as distinct in terms of language, culture and political leanings) and seven Union territories, India has been able to devise a system that allows its huge electorate of 714 million voters (more than the combined electorate of the EU and the US) to decide who will represent India in the global arena.
Indeed, it would be fair to say that if the EU ever got its political act together it would look more like India and if India ever gets its economic act together it would look more like the EU. Alas, none of these is likely in the foreseeable future.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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