We live in the age of media celebrity. So no surprise at the critical and sometimes bitter press reaction to the nomination of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton, virtually unknown beyond their own parishes, as Council President and High Representative respectively. As someone said, it was like a TV talent show where the choice of the people (and the press) was ignored by the judges. If only we’d been able to phone in!
I guess there are two kinds of disappointment: from those who were seeking charismatic European leadership to force the pace of change and talk face to face with other world leaders; and from those like UKIP who wanted appointment of a powerful figure like Tony Blair to demonstrate that the feared “European Superstate” really had been born. Two sides of the same coin, in fact.
It does at first sight seem a sad reflection on the EU’s lack of ambition that it should choose people with relatively little experience at the highest level of international affairs.
The reality is somewhat different though. This is a period of consolidation. Visionaries need not apply. The European Council was looking for a president who could provide continuity in the management of its business, escape from the six-monthly presidential rotation (although that will still apply for the specialist councils) and build longer term relationships on the international stage. By all accounts Van Rompuy seems well suited to this chairmanship role. His term as Belgian prime minister certainly demonstrated considerable political skills.
It strikes me that creation of the European External Action Service led by the High Representative could be much more far-reaching in its impact than the presidential appointment. Catherine Ashton will have a formidable task, but one with great potential – to “conduct” the Union’s common foreign and security policy and defence policy, making new proposals for policy development and carrying out the Council’s mandate. She will both chair the Foreign Affairs Council and sit as vice president in Commission meetings.
She has to create a European diplomatic service bringing together up to 6,000 officials from the Commission, Council and member states, which for the first time will integrate the Commission’s capabilities with the foreign affairs decisions of the Council, so the trade, aid and substantial budget resources of the Commission can be used to leverage the Council’s policy ambitions. A joined-up European foreign policy at last!
Who knows whether this institutional change will transform Europe’s role in the world as it should, using the soft power policies implemented by the Commission to achieve broader political goals and moving beyond foreign-policy-by-press-release (with all respect to the great efforts made by Solana).
Let’s take one region – the Middle East. The European Commission has for years provided the funding to keep the Palestinian Authority alive, yet the Council has developed no coherent political strategy, for instance on the recognition of Hamas after its success in the Gaza elections and the question of Jewish settlements. It’s time that Europe became an equal partner of the United States in such issues.
There is a host of areas where a stronger EU policy must be developed if Europe’s influence in the world is not to decline further in the face of major shifts in economic and political power across the globe. There is need for a European voice in NATO, much stronger co-ordination of policy within the United Nations and other international organisations and coherent European policies towards China, Russia and others.
In other words there is huge amount for Rompuy and Ashton to do, but they will only make progress if the member states accept the need for a concerted EU approach to the external problems which the Union faces and are willing to toughen up policy vis a vis the rest of the world.