Too many cooks

After nearly a decade of effort, the Lisbon Treaty is finally in place ? and Europeans finally have the chance to develop the unified voice and combined weight in the world that we all now understand to be necessary. Yet Europe?s national leaders seem unable to curb the sort of self-indulgent behaviour that will sabotage this historic opportunity.

there seems no other word than ‘self-indulgent’ to describe the latest French
campaign to undermine Catherine
Ashton. It is wholly pointless – both because, on the immediate casus belli of
whether the EU should have treated Haiti’s suffering as an opportunity for
grand-standing, Ashton was so obviously right and the Barniers and Lellouches so
obviously wrong, and because no amount of sniping will alter the facts that she
has the job, and has it for five years. Yet this, of course, is what the
mischief is really about; it is a temper tantrum occasioned by French
consciousness that they could perfectly well have secured the foreign affairs
job for themselves, if they had not chosen to prioritise the internal market
portfolio instead. Of course, this is scarcely Ashton’s fault – but blaming
someone else for the unwelcome consequences of one’s own decisions is a very
human trait. Alas, all sorts of bad behaviour is very human – and that does not
make it any more attractive, or productive.

This French carping will make life more
for Ashton – but the aim of a stronger
European role in the world is much more substantially damaged by the compulsion
of Europe’s national leaders to crowd into the
kitchen regardless of the consequences for the culinary operation in hand. A
prime example is the G20, where this obsessive European ‘presenteeism’ has
expanded the group to twenty-four – with one-third of the seats occupied by
Europeans. Fine, if this strengthened Europe’s
voice in the group’s discussions. But it has the opposite effect. Chairing the
G20 in Pittsburgh last September President Obama,
confronted with a sea of European faces, naturally gave the floor
for each new agenda item not to any one of them, but to the Chinese.

then, to the familiar dictum, there is actually weakness in numbers – as
Europe’s leaders again demonstrated in the disastrous finale to the climate
change summit in Copenhagen. Climate change had been a success
story for Europe – an unusual case of Europeans
grasping the urgency of the issue ahead of others, and then making the necessary
compromises within the EU to achieve a united policy and position. So why was
Europe so completely marginalised in the Copenhagen end-game?

A picture is worth a thousand
and we all saw the picture – of Barack Obama
in the circle of chairs with five European national leaders (Denmark, France,
Germany, Sweden and the UK), plus President Barroso, plus a dozen sherpas and
assorted aides. Did they all have to be there to contribute distinctive
view-points to the discussion, or to defend specific interests? Not in the
least. At this late and unhappy stage of proceedings, the issue was all too
simple – a summit heading towards a conclusion involving neither binding
constraints on national emissions nor even a globally-agreed temperature target.
All those Europeans were there for no better reason than that each felt him or
herself too important not to be.

OK, another
all-too-human vanity display,but surely not a hanging offence? But consider.
Barack Obama had just come from his meeting with the BRICs, at which the summit
outcome was in practice fixed. It was a meeting he had simply gate-crashed, even
providing his own chair when the Chinese tried to argue there was no seat for
him. Meanwhile, all those indispensable Europeans congregated elsewhere: like a
beetle on its back and incapable of righting itself, the inflated collective
leadership of Europe could do nothing but wait
to learn what outcome had been agreed by others.

The next
day, the press in France and
Britain (Germany too, no
doubt) reflected carefully-briefed accounts of how the summit had been saved
from total shipwreck by the extraordinary exertions of the relevant national
leader. In truth, European lack of discipline had resulted in a wholly
inadequate Copenhagen outcome being determined at a
meeting at which no European was even present.

The stronger European foreign
sought through the Lisbon Treaty requires a
willingness on the part of Europe’s national leaders to compromise on common
policies – and then to allow Europe’s designated representatives to take the
lead in advocating and negotiating them. This will require self-discipline –
some small check on the politician’s natural tendency to jostle for a place in
the lime-light, to posture for the national media, and to indulge in
self-promotion through the denigration of others.

Is this
really too much to ask of our national leaders? If it is, then we had better
prepare ourselves, Lisbon or no Lisbon, for a deepening
European twilight. 

This piece was first posted on Global Europe

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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