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Hearing voices

July 6, 2010

European-American relations have dramatically improved since the election of President Obama. But the hope in Washington that the Lisbon Treaty would lead to a coherent EU foreign policy hasn't yet been fulfilled.

European Union President Herman Van Rompuy with foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton
The EU's president and top diplomat are important, but not the only voicesImage: AP

The pleas coming out of the US, urging Europe to act as an effective global player alongside Washington are legendary. For decades, US administrations - both Democratic or Republican - have been complaining that the economic giant that is Europe punches way below its weight in world politics. And they have been cajoling the Europeans incessantly to engage in burden-sharing and get their act together.

Of course nothing changed substantially - until the Lisbon Treaty came around and with it the chance for a serious overhaul of Europe's decision-making process in the foreign policy arena.

But then Europe's leaders, as a first step of implementing the treaty, opted not for two well-known and widely respected veterans to become president and top diplomat for the new EU. Instead they chose in Herman van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton a duo to act as the new figureheads for the EU who most Europeans had never heard of before they were nominated. To be sure, both had previous political experience and until now have done a good enough job. But the message conveyed by this personnel selection clearly wasn't one of revolutionary change coming to and from Brussels.

What's more, internal strains and divisions even surfaced in the economic sphere, the one area where the EU is considered a global heavyweight. Protracted public squabbling over the response to Greece's financial collapse had not only negative consequences for international markets, but further damaged the EU's image as a global actor.

Constructive poliphony

So what will it take for Europe to have a foreign policy cast from the same mold?

"The bad news is that, in that sense the Europeans will never get their act together," Kalypso Nicolaidis, professor of international relations at Oxford University, told Deutsche Welle. Nicolaidis was part of the so-called EU reflection group chaired by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez that delivered its report on the future of the EU to President Rompuy in May.

"Europeans will always be about poliphony and in their bad days even cacophony," says Nicolaidis. "And to me Europeans as well as Americans need to understand that the goal should be that this is a constructive poliphony, a poliphony that makes sense."

She believes if we continue to judge Europe based on its ability to speak with one voice, we are bound to be disappointed. Because that won't ever happen, predicts Nicolaidis.

EU heads of state at an EU summit in Brussels, March 25, 2010
EU heads of state will continue to play a role in European foreign policyImage: AP

Instead, she argues, Europe and the US must first acknowledge the limits of Europe's structural setup and then come to grips with it and make the best out of it.

Progress, not perfection

While being far from perfect, the Lisbon Treaty and with it the new external action service still has the potential to enhance Europe's role in the world, argue experts. It just, won't happen overnight, says Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies.

"I think it's perfectly understandable that the setting up of the external action service takes a year to complete like every complex corporate merger takes time to be sorted out."

To underscore that the Lisbon Treaty has indeed changed the thinking within the EU Emerson tells an anecdote that happened two weeks ago. "Chancellor Merkel and President Medvedev said how about having a European-Russian security council between Lavrov and Ashton, just the two of them together."

The idea of an EU-Russian security council with only Ashton instead of the all the various defense ministers representing the EU was well-received, adds Emerson.

"And even more interesting is the idea that is beginning to float around in European circles to make it a trilateral meeting with Hillary Clinton as well. All of that could prove a really quite interesting and positive innovation as an example of how these new structures can lead to innovations."

US Vice President Joe Biden and European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek at the European Parliament in Brussels, May 6, 2010
The US wants Europe to play a more active global roleImage: AP

So if Europeans and Americans let go of the notion that Europe will ever speak with one voice and that it can remodel its decision-making process from that of a union of countries to a nation state, progress is possible, says Nicolaidis. She considers the Lisbon Treaty simply as a shell. An important one, but still only a shell, that must be filled.

"We Europeans need to organize ourselves in such a way that our diversity really becomes a strength," says Nicolaïdis. "And I would be the first one to admit that this is not the case now."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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