With this timid choice of leaders, the EU may have the faces it deserves

The holders of the new top jobs can perfectly represent a Europe that does not dare to project its values as a continent.

Tintin and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle would command more respect on the world stage.” This comment in a reader's letter to another newspaper is no doubt horribly unfair – but the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy and Cathy Ashton to the EU's new top jobs is very disappointing.

Of the two, the more important position and the more surprising choice is that of the high representative for foreign policy. Baroness Ashton, whom I have never met, seems nice, capable and a consensus-builder, and may be tougher than she looks; but her lack of international experience is painful to contemplate. Even her New Labour comrade and predecessor as EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, will only offer praise so faint it reads like a “damn”. (“Damn, why didn't they give it to me?”) Beyond the doors of the European commission, whose president is obviously delighted with the choice of his fellow commissioner, the sense of anti-climax is palpable. “It is rather less than we were hoping for,” commented an Obama administration official, with diplomatic understatement.

The best one can say is that the two newcomers will not start their new jobs burdened with excessively high expectations. They have everything to prove.

Alas, there is no puzzle how this came about. If only there were. But this was no aberration. On the contrary, these appointments followed the political logic of the European Union as it exists. They reflected the will of the democratically elected governments of the member states and of the two largest political groupings in the European parliament.

Van Rompuy was the candidate on whom France, Germany and the centre-right in the parliament agreed. Ashton emerged as the intersection of three criteria: from the centre-left, as defined by the centre-left grouping in the parliament (the centre-right having got the presidency); a Brit, in return for Gordon Brown giving up on Tony Blair's candidacy for the presidency; and a woman. The fact that there were at least 50 people better qualified for the job, including serving and former foreign ministers, counted for nothing. The objection that Ashton herself has never been directly elected to national office is completely beside the point. Nor have many excellent US cabinet members. Her foreign policy credentials are the issue, not her lack of direct democratic legitimacy.

Van Rompuy and Ashton may not be well qualified to represent the EU in the sense of commanding attention in Washington or Beijing. But they do brilliantly represent it in the sense of making visible or manifest its inner nature. Indeed, they are as deeply representative of today's EU as Ban Ki-moon is of today's UN.

At this anti-climactic moment, one of my favourite mottoes again comes to mind: “Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect”. But I confess that my usually optimistic will feels in need of an injection of steroids, to overcome the intellect's gloom. On steroids, I would make the optimistic case thus: since in reality almost everything still depends on the member states, it is good to have two low-profile consensus-builders. Over the next few years, Van Rompuy can concentrate on building up the habits of strategic co-operation in the European council and Ashton on the vital institution of the European foreign service. If she is well-advised, and a quick learner, there is no reason why Ashton should not pick the right people, make the right bureaucratic choices, build up effective EU embassies in the most appropriate countries, and so on.

Her good relationship with the European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, will be vital if she is to bring the big muscles of the EU – trade, development aid, enlargement, competition policy, etc – to bear on any particular external problem. A few successes, perhaps in smaller African and Middle Eastern countries where Germany, France and Britain don't feel an overwhelming need to have their own separate and different policies, will pave the way for larger ones. Common analyses prepared by the European foreign service will gradually convince national foreign ministers that their national interests do largely coincide on nine issues out of 10.

European foreign policy will be made where the national interests sufficiently coincide; where they don't, it won't be. The further rise of non-European great powers such as China, India and Brazil will help to concentrate European minds on the world they're in.

Gradually, a new strategic culture will emerge, so that Europeans talk about the same foreign policy questions in similar ways (though still in different languages) in their own countries. In five years' time, the ground will have been prepared for a more high-profile high representative who might indeed stop the traffic in Cairo, if not in Beijing.

But the pessimistic intellect retorts: in your dreams, optimistic will, in your dreams. It's not just the heads of national governments who are reluctant to do what is needed to have Europe speak with a stronger voice.

In their reluctance, they represent the wishes of the majority of their people. Intellectually, they may recognise the case for getting our act together; politically, they are both shaped and bound by their own national politics. After every European summit, every prime minister rushes to brief his or her national media about his or her national triumph.

Brown's British-bullish presentation of Ashton's appointment in Brussels was an egregious case in point. The theatre of politics is all national and local, not European. The only European political theatre is provided by Silvio Berlusconi, and that's opéra bouffe.

Most European citizens like what the EU gives them in terms of freedom of movement, prosperity, security, consumer choice. But they now increasingly take that for granted, even in places like Estonia that 20 years ago did not even exist on the map as sovereign states. Most Europeans are not interested in projecting European power around the world – and certainly not military power. Many feel we did too much of that already in our history. So bring our boys home from Afghanistan and just leave us alone.

It's enough to preserve our own quality of life, with its mix of prosperity, diversity, leisure and social security. Even the idea of extending those blessings to our fellow-Europeans in the Balkans, let alone to Turkey, meets growing resistance. Refined arguments may be made in the pages of quality newspapers about how we need a European foreign policy simply to defend, in the longer run, the very quality of life Europeans value most – but these arguments cut little ice. Today's external challenges – climate change, global poverty, Russia, rising China – are not immediate and galvanising, like the armies of Hitler's Third Reich or Stalin's Soviet Union in the heart of Europe. They don't make everyone feel that we must stand up and be counted, now.

In short, by avoiding the hard choices, Europe makes its choice: for soft, slow, fragmented decline. Europe becomes a museum of the good life; still bright and modern now, but slowly getting darker and more decrepit as the years go by. And this Greater Switzerland has the faces it deserves. Or so, at least, speaks the pessimistic intellect on a rainy November day.

This piece was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free on 25 November 2009.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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