After the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy as the first President of the European Council and Lady Catherine Ashton as Europe’s foreign minister (but let’s do away with the faux pretense that changing her title changed the substance here), it would seem I had won this strategic political argument as well. How could anyone possibly believe that these two unheard-of players have the political weight to charm, bully, coerce, and otherwise stampede proud nation-states such as the UK, France, or Italy, into giving up their specific national interests, all in the name of the greater European good (whatever that is)?
But skeptics don’t seem to understand the basic contradiction in their argument. Rather, they led the charge in mocking the new titular heads of the European project, without reflecting on what their slightness says about Europe itself. And, at first glance, it is certainly true there is a good deal of fun to be had here. Sorting out fractious Belgium, as Van Rompuy has been doing (quite well) over the past year would not seem to qualify one for the grand position of EU President. Likewise, Mrs. Ashton has never been elected to a political office, and has less ostensible foreign policy experience than a good number of associates at my consulting firm. My favorite epithet was to see them simply dismissed in a leading British newspaper as “Garden Gnomes”: small, cuddly, and supremely unimportant. But that, as is so often the case over European politics, surely misses the point.
For British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s pithy observation that the EU needs a President who could ‘stop traffic around the world’ illustrates that he simply doesn’t know how the place works. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the man the Foreign Secretary surely had in mind when he made the comment, never really had a chance at the job, and not just for the obvious reasons. Sure, Iraq and his closeness to the hated George W. Bush did not help him at all, nor did his total lack of interest in his other center-left colleagues on the continent. But the basic problem for Blair was who he was; a sort of heroic leader, like him or not –a man who would lead from the front and not worry overmuch about coordinating others’ opinions, instead pushing visions of his own. But nation-states such as Germany and France simply don’t want a grandstander getting in the way of their very different takes on any number of things. European federalism has run its course. A heroic leader, ideal for a country, is not required in an entity that will always have less coherence than a country.
The basic problem of analysis is that Europe remains far less than its most fervent supporters dream of and talk about (i.e. anyone working in Brussels) while remaining far more than nothing. Europe is and will remain nothing more than a confederation at best, where sometimes in foreign policy matters general consensus can be arrived at. Of course, this is hardly always the case: just think of European differences on how to deal with Russia, but also China, and in fact America.
As this is actual reality, picking leaders such as Van Rompuy and Ashton makes a good deal of sense. They will never set a cocktail party on fire, let alone a continent, but they do understand that the EU works by the painstaking process of coordinating and forging consensus. Europe was never going to move forward as a nation-state – yearning for heroic decisive leadership – precisely because it is not a nation-state. Low-key leaders can perhaps make it function better.
Foreign Secretary Miliband made a second, less quoted observation that is actually far more important, and far more the problem for Europe’s continued relevance. The worry is the concept of historical time. He noted that if Europe continues to punch below its weight in foreign affairs, the rest of the planet, particularly the Chinese and Americans, will greet its continued haplessness with little more than a telling shrug, and instead organize the new world around a G2 of Beijing and Washington. I can tell you that is already happening. On meeting with my friends in the Washington foreign policy establishment over the past three weeks, every time I mentioned a lack of a vigorous European foreign policy (at either the Brussels or national level) I was invariably met with a mixture of silence and eye rolling. Miliband is on to something here. The standard, lazy, European response to pointing out its lack of proactive policy alternatives is to be told (rather insultingly as though one didn’t know anything of European history) how far Europe has come in the past 50 years. And how other obstacles melted away over time, how Europe always seems to limp along, and will continue to do so. This is worse than self-congratulatory, a-historical nonsense; it is dangerous.
For history does not kindly wait for powers of any sort to pull themselves together before proceeding. Europe is almost out of time, if it wants the G2 to become a G3. In picking the much-maligned Van Rompuy and Ashton, Europe has signaled it understands that only by getting better at the unsexy art of coordination can it possibly play a credible role on the world stage. That is all to the good. But the next step is the harder and essential act; to come up with proactive, creative, generally accepted continent-wide foreign policy strategies that win wide national acceptance and then live up to them. Without a genuine European intellectual renaissance as to how to create a forward-looking foreign policy, at the global strategic level it simply will not matter who runs Europe. And the clock is ticking.