The Punch Europe Needs


Quentin Peel’s analysis of the new EU jobs contains a lot of interesting background, but I’m not sure that the lede is right:

The appointment of Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister, as president of the European Council and Lady Ashton of the UK as European Union “high representative” for foreign affairs is certain to be seen by many as a demonstration of Europe’s inability to punch its weight on the global stage.

Neither is a big political figure with an international reputation. Both are classic consensus-building figures, unthreatening to national European leaders, and unlikely to steal the limelight from their rivals.

I think the idea that the EU could have become a major player on the world stage simply by picking a famous person to be President of the European Council was always a mirage based on fuzzy thinking. If the EU were a country, it would be a very important country. It would have the largest economy in the world, a medium-sized nuclear arsenal, and a military that though considerably smaller than America’s does have some ability to project power on a global basis. Under the circumstances, even the most obscure person in the world would become an important player once he ascended to the top leadership post. But the EU isn’t a country, so it a fortiori isn’t an important country.

The weight-punching issue, viewed in this light, isn’t an issue of personalities it’s an issue of institutions. To punch its weight, Europe needs institutions that facilitate collective decision-making that can put its weight into place. This is why, per Annie Lowrey, the foreign policy job “will end up being the vastly more influential one — Ashton will control thousands of civil servants and a large budget.” Jean-Claude Trichet is one of the most important people on the planet, not because he’s famous, but because the European Central Bank has real responsibilities and the power to do things. Ashton will have some real authority, and that will make her important. Van Rompuy, meanwhile, will be able to wield some influence on the world stage if-and-only-if he’s able to forge a consensus of EU national leaders to back some course of action or another. Under the circumstances, a consensus-builder figure isn’t an alternative to a strong leader—the only way the office he’s picked for can possibly be strong is through consensus-building.