EU appointments: visionaries need not apply

November 23, 2009 at 12:02 pm 3 comments

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.

Michael Berendt

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Entry filed under: Council, European Commission, politics. Tags: , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Julien Frisch  |  November 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    I look at this from a pro-European citizen’s perspective, and I say you’re rather wrong:

    The EU needs visionaries, not because I want them to look brilliant on the international stage but because we need persons who stand for a common European Union and a common European democracy where we all live and work together.

    I want to have somebody who does brilliant things I can applaud and somebody who provokes because s/he is pushing for issues I don’t agree with – this is called democracy. What you are looking for is technocracy.

    And on another level, there are more good arguments for stronger persons: Member states will only come to more positive, more forward-looking consensus if their politicians think that the consensus in the interest of their people – and for that we need European figures who can explain to citizens and to convince citizens that overcoming the nationalistic thinking of the past is in all our interest.

    The decision made now says: Every member state has the right to be egoistic, and we will try to find the lowest common denominator that will always be against the interest of all EU citizens but always in favour of individual member states’ politicians and bureaucrats preferences.

    Reply
    • 2. Michael Berendt  |  November 25, 2009 at 7:08 pm

      Many thanks for your comments. Let me make two points; First, the job descriptions I suggested were the Council’s, not mine! If the EU had been able to appoint visionaries who also had the political skills and staying power to create the effective institutions we need, then it would have been great news. The greater danger would be to appoint higher profile people who started their job with a bang, lost the confidence of member states and ended with a disillusioned whimper.

      Second, we are in a long game. I am more optimistic than you that Van Rompuy and Ashton have the capabilities to build a strong foreign policy for Europe. That seems to me the key objective of the whole exercise.

      Reply
  • 3. “EU institutions on Twitter « Erkan's Field Diary  |  November 25, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    […] EU appointments: visionaries need not apply from Public Affairs 2.0 […]

    Reply

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