Which Direction for the European Union?

Most observers were surprised when the European Union named Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the first full-time EU president on Thursday. While the much-hyped candidacy of former front-runner Tony Blair had been unofficially declared dead several weeks ago, observers had been expecting a higher-profile person to fill the position. Perhaps more surprising was the decision to name Baroness Cathy Ashton to the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. 

The selection of Van Rompuy and Ashton for two of the most important positions in the new European Union structure led to widespread criticism. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Green Party, described the choices as “dreary” and “insignificant,” an assessment echoed by British Liberal Democrat MEP description as “not very exciting.” Told of Ashton’s selection, former Italian Prime Minister and European Commission President Romano Prodi said, “Ashton? Who is she? I haven’t heard of her.” (The Systemic Change in Business and Politics blog, on the other hand, offers a fairly positive assessment of the choice).

While Ashton and Van Rompuy dismissed their critics, there seems to be a general consensus emerging that the selection of two relatively unknown politicians for key posts in the new European Union demonstrated a lack of ambition and undermined the ability of the EU to exercise real power and influence on the global stage. But the choices also seem likely to entrench the power and influence of José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission.

The choices appear to have been the result of an effort to avoid a protracted political battle over the posts and to instead project consensus to the world. But as Gavin Hewitt notes, in the context of EU politics, consensus often translates as “the person that is least objectionable” or “the lowest common denominator.”

Charlemagne’s Notebook blog at the Economist offers a great assessment of what the choices mean for the position of the European Union in global politics, observing

I am told that a decisive factor at tonight’s meeting was the desire to achieve a consensus on the decision, and not risk a vote that could have exposed a divided Europe. But I think it also means that today’s European leaders have little ambition to use the EU to talk to the world, at least not at the highest level. Instead, they know their voters want to use the union as a “Europe that protects”, a Europe that makes the world go away.

In short, a European Union oriented toward domestic rather than global issues.

But there also appears to be a great deal of uncertainty about how political power will actually be exercised in the new European Union. The approval of the Lisbon Treaty was intended to make the EU more efficient and increase the role of the Parliament and the Council, the two branches of the European Union directly accountable to the people over the unelected Commission. But, if the composition of the new European Council is any indication, real political power in the European Union will continue to reside not in the elected parliament, and not in the new presidency, but in the Commission, the bureaucracy of the of the European Union. In this sense, despite the adoption of the new constitution, little appears to have changed.

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