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The Cure Now Appears Worse Than The Disease

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Just try to solve it: Belgian Prime Minsiter Herman Van Rompuy (left), who is president of the European Council; Jose Manuel Barroso (center), the president of the European Commission; and Catherine Ashton, the high representative of foreign policy.

Just try to solve it: Belgian Prime Minsiter Herman Van Rompuy (left), who is president of the European Council; Jose Manuel Barroso (center), the president of the European Commission; and Catherine Ashton, the high representative of foreign policy.

In boxing terms, the European Union has been floored. Barely two months into the era ushered in by its all-transforming, all-fixing Lisbon Treaty, the bloc this week suffered a rude awakening when U.S. President Barack Obama let it be known he would not attend the next regular summit.

This wasn't coming from just any old U.S. president. It was Barack Obama, who had replaced George W. Bush after the latter's eight years of high-handed dismissal of all outside counsel. And it wasn't any old diplomatic note of regrets the EU found itself in receipt of on February 3. A lot of coffee must have been spilled across the Old Continent as ministers and diplomats opened their copies of “The Wall Street Journal-Europe,” which broke the news.

"Obviously, there's been some disappointment expressed," U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told a press briefing later the same day. "We are working on it."

And then he delivered the killer blow: It was the Lisbon Treaty that did it. The EU must first sort out who is in charge, Crowley said.

It's difficult to blame Obama.

In a sense, Obama did Europe a favor by not letting that rivalry play itself out. But the rivalry is no more than the tip of the iceberg.
With its rotating presidency, the EU turned the face of a new prime minister or president at its helm to the outside world every six months. Some were obviously of less global consequence than others. Last autumn, Obama had Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt lunch with Vice President Joe Biden. But no matter how awkward the system, there was a quiet kind of predictability to it. Weak presidencies alternated with strong. The phone number kept changing, but it was there.

The cure now appears worse than the disease.

The Lisbon Treaty gave the EU a full-time president and a beefed-up foreign policy high representative -- but it also kept the rotating presidency and subtly expanded the powers of the quasi-executive European Commission and the quasi-legislative European Parliament. Most importantly, it did not change the way the bloc makes and carries out foreign policy.

Already Rickety

What the Lisbon Treaty did was make an already rickety structure extremely top heavy. The EU now has four leaders at any one time entitled to call themselves "presidents."

There is Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, theoretically primus inter pares among EU leaders.

There is Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission.

There is Jose Maria Zapatero, president of the EU Council of Ministers as prime minister of Spain, the current holder of the six-monthly rotating presidency and responsible for all EU matters bar foreign policy.

And there is Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament.

The immediate problem for the EU is that power -- no matter how imaginary -- is a finite resource and politicians will always be politicians. The prospect of an EU-U.S. summit, a showcase event extraordinaire, led to ill-concealed squabbles between Zapatero and Van Rompuy over whether it should take place in Madrid or Brussels and over who should shake hands with Obama first. Not to mention seating orders, photo-op lineups, and other spoils of protocol.

In a sense, Obama did Europe a favor by not letting that rivalry play itself out.

Catherine Ashton
But the rivalry is no more than the tip of the iceberg. Brussels is now embroiled in a constant war of institutions. Thus, the life of the foreign-policy high representative, Catherine Ashton, is anything but straightforward. She may have nominal control over the foreign-policy brief, but the rotating presidency still chairs all other EU meetings -- among them the monthly gatherings of EU energy, trade, justice, interior, environment, and agriculture ministers. The Spanish ambassador runs the COREPER, which brings together the senior EU ambassadors from the 27 member states and for all practical purposes shapes the day-to-day EU agenda.

Ashton -- who is also a vice president of the European Commission, which dispenses the 150-billion-euro annual EU budget -- suffered a further blow when she lost the cash-heavy neighborhood and enlargement portfolios to Czech Commissioner Stefan Fule.

The expected creation later this spring of an EU External Action Service (EAS), an embryonic EU diplomatic corps, will partially make up for Ashton's travails, but the EAS will not bring her any autonomous foreign-policy-making powers.

A deeper-seated problem for the EU is that not only are Van Rompuy and Ashton nonentities on the world scene, but that they also do not represent any established interests, groups, or factions within the EU. There was no element of meritocracy to their elevation, other than a vague belief on the part of EU leaders that they have the ability to remain on top of a balancing act where member states have ultimate sovereignty over all foreign-policy issues.

Doomed To Fail

Among other things, the Lisbon Treaty was a desperate attempt to coordinate EU foreign policy from the top down. It was doomed to fail from the start because the people at the top have no power. The million-dollar question -- “Would Obama have refused President Tony Blair?” -- doesn't really arise. It is the institutional confusion and lack of ambition that has done the damage.

And this state of affairs appears to suit most EU member states. Most mainstream EU newspapers have treated Obama's dismissal of Europe as someone else's problem. No member state (other than Spain) lost face. It was the vague notion of “Europe” that took the blow. "The White House has reawakened Europe's existential worries," read a subheading in France's “Le Monde” on February 2, above an article offering a scathing summary of the shortcomings of the Lisbon Treaty.

Neither officials nor observers appear overly surprised by this turn of events. The Lisbon Treaty, at least in its external aspects, has already been written off as a dud in most EU capitals. Nothing has dated quite as fast as the notion that there exists a "solipsistic obsession" in Europe and the United States with their mutual relationship, posited as late as 2005 by Mark Leonard, a leading EU optimist, in a book entitled "Why Europe Will Run The 21st Century."

A little slower to disappear has been the belief in Brussels that global U.S. hegemony will be replaced by a “multipolar” world order in which the EU would automatically be one of the poles. The Lisbon Treaty was infused by this hope, but it now seems that in drawing up the new constitutional treaty, the EU's would-be (re-)founding fathers labored under a catastrophic misapprehension vis-a-vis the shape of things to come. A modicum of regional cooperation without the ability to project hard power means very little on the global scene. All other putative poles -- China, Russia, etc -- are hard-nosed nation states that measure their power against the might of the United States.

In a progressively less rule-governed world, the EU's own member states, east and west, also instinctively look to the United States whenever their core interests are at stake. The global hegemony of the United States may be weakening, but the EU holds out no alternative to anyone.

Having taken its best shot in the form of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has not been able to introduce economies of scale into its foreign-policy making. Its member states continue to view one another first of all as competitors -- even if they know that pooling resources and sovereignty would benefit them all in the long run.

Obama has sent the EU another warning signal, but beyond registering it, it is difficult to see what the bloc could do.

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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