Message to Europe: Please Surprise Us
BRUSSELS -- To many people outside of Brussels, the process that resulted in the selection of Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as President of the European Council and Catherine Ashton to the dual-hatted position as High Representative for External Affairs and Vice President of the European Commission was a bit like waiting for the white smoke to come out of the Vatican. To an American residing in Europe's equivalent of the Beltway, however, the political logic that led to these decisions was pretty straightforward. The European center-right grouping got first choice on one position, so the other had to be a candidate of the center-left. One went to the leader of a small country, so the other had to go to a figure from a larger member.
Diversity and gender was also a consideration. Such political balancing acts happen all the time in American politics -- it's how U.S. presidential candidates choose their running mates and presidents pick their cabinets. Nor is it so hard to imagine that Van Rompuy and Ashton might be rather useful in their new posts. Surely there is no better schooling for managing EU leaders than the cockpit of Belgian coalition politics, where Houdini-like skills are required for success. And anyone who dealt with Lady Ashton when she was EU Trade Commissioner knows she is tough, effective, and not to be underestimated. At the same time, I certainly was not the only one in Brussels who fielded one call after another of incomprehension and disappointment about these choices. After all, it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who suggested Tony Blair for the Presidency of the European Council, and U.K. Foreign Minister David Miliband who said the new High Representative should be able to stop traffic in Moscow or Beijing.
Having set the bar that high, it is not surprising that Van Rompuy and Ashton hardly were greeted with universal acclamation. It may not not difficult to see the Van Rompuy-Ashton team working together effectively to create consensus on foreign policy issues within the EU -- at least in cases where one or a group of nation-states does not have a strong national preference. But can they really crack heads and force agreement when that task must be done? And can they represent the EU in the corridors of power in Washington, go toe-to-toe with the leaders in the Kremlin on energy, hammer out new trade or financial agreements with Beijing or face down the mullahs in Tehran on nuclear issues? What can one conclude other than Europe's leaders opted to keep control of issues such as these largely to themselves? Elsewhere, too, there is a palpable sense of a lost opportunity for Europe. Many of Europe's partners today urgently want the EU to assume a more global role and responsibility; nowhere is this more true than in Washington.
America's own Euroskeptics, once a formidable intellectual and political force, have ridden off into the sunset. Washington is more open to a new global partnership with the EU than at any time in the last forty years. But the appointments last week of two individuals most Americans have never heard of have not made it easier to argue for upgrading U.S.-EU cooperation on global foreign policy challenges. Predictions of Europe's geopolitical slide into irrelevance are nevertheless premature. The EU is simply too big and important to ignore. And the United States today is becoming more rather than less dependent on cooperation with the EU if it wants to pursue its own interests across a wide variety of areas. So at the end of the day we have little choice but to go back and try to make this relationship work better with what we have. The real question is whether an EU led by this new team will be able to punch above or below its weight in international affairs. Let's hope they pleasantly surprise us.
Ronald D. Asmus is Executive Director of the Transatlantic Center and of Strategic Planning for the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.