New appointments at the European Union have kicked up a debate about the future of the organisation
By Ansar Mahmood Bhatti
Often described as a miracle, the European Union appears to have ‘achieved’ yet another milestone by appointing a president of the European Council and a foreign affairs minister last month. These appointments come in the wake of implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, which envisages drastic changes in the existing EU structures so as to transform it into a more vibrant; coherent, and a powerful outfit that is capable of playing as a counter-balancing force in a world dominated by the US.
Since the evolution of the EU is a direct result of the World War II, in which millions of people lost their lives, the central point in setting up this organisation was perhaps to stymie any future threats to humanity. Some even say the Cold War was another factor that had led to the creation of the European Community.
Anyhow, now we have a powerful body comprising 27 countries, with a population of about 495 million people, but even then at times this body finds it difficult to act as a bulwark against unilateralism and expansionism, mainly because of its lack of interest in becoming a political power as well. And this is of course a fundamental anomaly which it needs to overcome sooner rather than later, because it may not be able to play an effective role at the world stage by acquiring status of an economic power and remaining a political dwarf.
However, as compared with the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and Non-aligned Movement (NAM), the European Union is better poised and has potential and capacity of immediately recovering from occasional political and monetary hiccups. In contrast with other bodies, EU happens to be lucky to have leaders gifted with great insight and sagacity — though exceptions are always there.
The Lisbon Treaty or Reform Treaty, as we may call it, is an improved version of erstwhile European Constitution that could not see light of the day because of its rejection by the French and Dutch voters in 2005. Despite all ifs and buts, the Lisbon Treaty proves to be a masterpiece crafted by able European thinkers, who had to toil day and night, to translate this dream into reality.
Today’s Europe is different in many ways, as John Newhouse would put it in his book Europe Adrift. It isn’t a Europe of self-contained, independent states, nor is it a cohesive European Union. Power is shifting unevenly among the national capitals and Brussels-based institutions of the EU. On November 19, the European Council met to fill top jobs, as per provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, but it surprised all by selecting almost ‘nobodys’ for the coveted slots. The appointments of Herman van Rompuy and Catharine Ashton as the President of the Council and the foreign affairs supremo respectively, confirmed that France and Germany are still the ones influencing key decisions within the bloc, an approach that is in direct conflict with the spirit of the Treaty, which says all decisions shall be taken through the qualified majority system and not by consensus.
A perception is emerging fast within and outside Europe that Mr. Rompuy lacks in political acumen and skills and that he, therefore, may find it hard to lead the EU in an assertive manner. Mr. Jan De Kok, the European Union Ambassador in Pakistan has a different view. "Mr. Rompuy has a vast experience as Minister and as Prime Minister of Belgium, i.e. over 20 years. Besides, he has good credentials of a consensus builder and what we need from him is to get consensus among European leaders and get the citizens excited again about Europe", he says.
Germany and France opposed Tony Blair’s candidature for the top job because of two cardinal reasons, 1) his appointment as Council President might have overshadowed leaders of both these countries, and 2) there was fear of a split among various member countries, majority of which was not happy with Blair’s Iraq policy and his out of proportion tilt towards George Bush, maybe towards America. But knowing it from the onset that their candidate will never be able to make it, even then Gordon Brown and his cabinet continued to supporting him wholeheartedly.
This gimmick really worked and enabled them to have perhaps even a better deal whereby Ms. Catharine became foreign minister and vice-president of the European Commission. "As for appointment of Ms. Ashton, there is no reason to doubt that she can give meaning to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)", is the understanding of Mr. Jan de Kok.
While the new office-bearers are set to take charge of their assignments after the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, effective from December 1, criticism is not going to die down anytime soon. Ms. Ashton’s appointment, especially, is likely to evoke more flak for she comes from a country that has always been reluctant to be a full-blooded member of the EU. Britain is still out of single currency euro and the Schengen visa system, the two key factors that should determine depth of relationship between a country and the EU. Interestingly, even after signing of the treaty, rules of the game — the game of exercising political expediency, influence and clout — remain unchanged.
The allotment of portfolios to commissioners has almost been finalised and shall come into effect after the European Parliament accedes to these appointments. Being the executive arm of the EU, the Commission is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the Union’s treaties and the general day-to-day running of the Union. That is why every country pursues turbo-charged campaigning in order to grab lucrative positions. Despite potential opposition from Britain, France was able to pocket the most important portfolio of internal market, with a view to maintaining a tight control over the financial services.
All said and done, new appointments may not bring any respite to Turkey’s frets and furor for Rompuy has been an inveterate opponent of Turkey’s EU membership. He once remarked, "Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe. The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey." One may have sincere sympathies for Ankara, whose chances of becoming a full member, especially in the current scenario, are stretching thin and its accession desire turning out to be more ideal than an attainable goal.
Let’s derive some hope from the words of Ambassador Kok who is confident that the end result will be positive. Agreed, it will certainly take some time to make the Lisbon Treaty work, but it is incumbent upon the new appointees to come up with a comprehensive future strategy so as to address apprehensions of their critics. Appointment of ‘unknowns’ to prize posts goes to show that the EU wants to make a humble and steady beginning. If it really intends to have a smooth sailing in the coming days then it will have to make sure that influential national governments are not allowed to eclipse performance of the inductees.