LONDON: The selection of Herman van Rompuy as President of the European Union’s Council of Ministers, and of Lady Catherine Ashton as the EU’s foreign policy chief, surely underlines the extent to which member states are in the driver’s seat in the EU. They manage its institutions in their own interest. The EU is no super-state striding bravely into a bright new dawn.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will not have to compete for the global limelight with any Brussels supremos. Germany will not be challenged to break out of its increasing introversion, no longer obliged to demonstrate its democratic post-war credentials by embracing the European cause at every turn. Britain can rest easy that its world role will remain the aspiring Jeeves of the White House.
The best that could come from the appointment of Europe’s two new low-profile leaders is that it leads to better and more coherent management of the EU’s business. Van Rompuy will be able to offer a longer view than that of a six-month national presidency. Lady Ashton should be able to tie together the political and resource arms of Europe’s external policies.
But it is not yet clear, whatever the Lisbon Treaty says, that Ashton has full control of either the EU external budget or of appointments to the new diplomatic service. She has a difficult hand to play, and can expect her elbow to be nudged regularly by EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who was the big winner in the carve-up of jobs. But foreign ministers will be deeply suspicious if they think that the Commission is taking over foreign policy.
Past experience suggests that there are five guidelines to follow if we want a more effective European presence on the world stage whenever foreign and security policy are at the top of the agenda.
First, we should dare to believe that what most suits Europe’s interests might also be best for our relationship with our closest ally, the United States. We should, for example, want to prevent the militarization of nuclear energy in Iran precisely because of our concern as Europeans, not because we are allies of the US.
Second, our rhetoric about our role as America’s international partners for peace should not stray too far from reality. True, we tend to align ourselves these days more with Venus than Mars, something for which the rest of the world should be deeply grateful. But we take this a little too far.
It is not just that Europe does not spend enough on hard power, but that what it does spend – about ?200 billion – is spent badly. The EU needs common defense procurement and harmonization to acquire the helicopters, transport aircraft, battlefield communications equipment, and surveillance drones that are necessary for twenty-first-century operations.
For reasons of history, morality, and security, Africa should be regarded as a particular European responsibility. We should deploy our aid, diplomacy, and peace-keeping capacity to support sustainable development, good governance, and regional collaboration on the continent.
Third, where Europe has a serious internal policy, it is easier to establish a more serious external policy. The best example of this is energy policy and Russia, which wants a sphere of influence around its borders.
Dealing with Russia has probably been the biggest failure in the attempt to make European foreign policy. To formulate such a policy requires us to frame a single energy policy. Lady Ashton will need to be firm in dealing with Russia and with member states who subordinate Europe to the commercial interests of their national energy companies.
Fourth, European external policy is most effective the nearer it is to home. We are at our best in our own neighborhood – and at our worst, too. The greatest success of Europe’s external policy has been EU enlargement. This promoted and consolidated regime change without the use of weapons, thereby stabilizing the European continent.
The job is not complete. The prospect of EU membership is at the heart of EU policy in the western Balkans, where we are starting to show (for example in Bosnia-Herzegovina) a dangerous disinclination to apply tough conditionality. We are committed to Ukraine’s “European vocation, but not to its EU membership. Spot the difference!
We undertook more than four decades ago to negotiate Turkish membership once that country became fully democratic with an open economy and respect for human rights and the rule of law. For Europe to turn down Turkey would be tantamount to writing ourselves out of any serious script in global affairs. We would be rejecting a country that is an important regional power, a significant NATO member, and a crucial energy hub. We would stand accused of burning, rather than building, bridges to the Islamic world. Unfortunately, van Rompuy, an author and poet, has spoken out against Turkish membership in far cruder terms than one would expect from a gentle haiku writer.
My final guideline for policy is that Europe is not and will not become a superpower or super-state. Unlike the US, we do not matter everywhere. We do not require a policy on every problem and every place. But where the problem affects much else, and where the region is close to home, we should have a policy that consists of more than waiting to agree with whatever America decides that its policy should be, as, for example, in the Middle East. The present “no war-no peace lull in the Middle East is not sustainable; nor is a one-state solution either possible or desirable.
So what can we do to nudge things forward in a region where America is again engaged but not respected, and where Europe is neither? At the very least, we could set out our own policy, beginning with an effort to end the fragmentation of Palestine and Palestinians between the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Does it matter if Europe is not on the same page as the US? Frankly, no.
Two weeks ago, when Obama had to choose between a meeting of ASEAN or the celebrations in Berlin marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, he chose to go to Asia. Will Europe do enough to change his mind the next time there is such a choice? As things stand, we are in danger of making Europe politically irrelevant, a successful customs union with a Swissified foreign policy and a group of fractious, vision-free leaders.
Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU Commissioner for External Affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, (www.project-syndicate.org).