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The European Union, fortified by the Treaty of Lisbon, last week selected a full-time president and foreign minister. Tony Blair, a candidate for the presidency, was rejected in favor of Belgium’s little-known prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy, through a process so opaque that selecting a new pope in the College of Cardinals looks transparent. The EU’s first foreign minister has no foreign policy experience.
How will the Lisbon Treaty and its new bureaucratic leadership affect EU relations with Washington? Most likely, contrary to the treaty’s advocates, there will be no effect at all.
The EU has accomplished the seemingly impossible, taking a major step forward and then almost simultaneously reversing it. One form of EU gridlock has simply been replaced by another, all created by Europeans for Europeans.
Over the years, advocates of a stronger EU argued closer integration would make the EU better able to stand up to the United States. These same advocates then turned around and argued to Americans that a stronger EU would be a better global partner for the United States.
Maybe they thought we weren’t paying attention. In any event, we still don’t know which half of their internally contradictory argument, if either, is correct. Despite endless negotiations, innumerable treaties and communiques, and endless prattle by pro-Brussels commentators, the EU remains weak and ineffective internationally.
Critically, a “strong EU” is manifestly not the same as a strong Europe, and not the kind of partner Washington needs. Drafters and proponents of the Lisbon Treaty once proudly called it an EU “constitution,” but this label was disappeared for more anodyne nomenclature after a few essentially cosmetic changes to its text.
Many, whether for or against ratification, downplayed the name change as mere spin, which it was to an extent. But more importantly, when “the European project” either can’t tell the truth to Europe’s people or can’t decide what the truth actually is, it is in deep trouble.
So today, the EU has a potentially strong, new treaty but weak, new leadership. Until the peoples within the EU decide what they really want–and there is ample to reason to believe they do not want a “stronger EU”–no amount of treaty tinkering or intricate personnel selection will change the underlying absence of agreement on the way forward. Indeed, obscuring that basic disagreement, a well-honed EU skill, long term only makes the problem worse.
Even if Europeans could create a “strong EU,” it would not be a close U.S. ally. Europe is already so internally focused that a “strong EU” is ironically even more likely to be inward looking and isolationist than it is today, precisely the opposite of America’s preference. Moreover the visceral anti-Americanism permeating much of Europe’s politics, fading only when presented with a palpably post-American president like Barack Obama, will surely be even more influential in a “strong EU.”
The plain truth is that the EU is less than the sum of its parts, and has been for quite some time. From the U.S. perspective, this is bad news indeed, because responding to a challenging world, filled with threats of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, requires a strong Europe to work with the United States.
What would most benefit America and Europe is a group of confident, independent European nation-states capable of deciding democratically they want to defend their interests, their values and their allies around the world. We once had that in NATO, but no longer. The disappearance of the Soviet threat and the demands of EU “communitaire” behavior have weakened both NATO and its individual European members. When Canada complains, justifiably, that Europe is not pulling its weight in Afghanistan, Europeans should realize the trouble they’re in.
Given the EU’s indecisiveness last week, it is only a matter of time before advocates of greater European integration call for yet another treaty. This has been the consistent pattern, and there is no reason to think it will not reassert itself.
When it does, that is the tangible opportunity to call into question the entire integrationist effort. Have the debate then, while advocates of yet another sub silentio constitutional effort are just getting organized, rather than waiting until a document has emerged, ready to be rammed through by parliamentary majorities insulated from popular opinion.
Individual European nations, led by strong leaders, will not invariably be U.S. “poodles,” the malicious and fanciful charge leveled against Mr. Blair by opponents of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Strong leaders should and likely will advocate their countries’ interests to Washington, where issues can be identified and hopefully resolved. What such a re-emergence of strong European nations will avoid, however, is EU decision-making, a rare human process that repeatedly makes molehills out of mountains, as it just did in selecting its new leadership.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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