Leaders of the 27 member states of the European Union are meeting in Brussels on November 19 to choose the first-ever European president and European foreign minister. European political elites say these two new jobs are needed so that the notoriously divided EU can begin speak with one voice on the global stage. Once that happens, they contend, the EU will assume its rightful role as a world superpower and act as a counter-balance to the United States.
Geo-strategists are debating whether Europe’s superpower moment is or is not just around the corner. But if the nomination process for the individual who will represent 500 million Europeans has demonstrated anything at all, it is that Europe is inexorably moving in a direction that has far more in common with Soviet totalitarianism than with Western liberal democracy.
In what has been described as a “slow-moving coup d’état,” Europe over the past several decades has experienced a gradual but significant shift in political power away from individual nation states towards an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy based in Brussels.
Today, these so-called Eurocrats oversee more than 100,000 pages of EU legislation, much of which has primacy over national legislation and parliaments. Indeed, unelected bureaucrats in Brussels now exercise so much power that they dictate what elected leaders can or cannot do in more than 30 policy areas.
In 2004, European federalists moved to consolidate their power by means of the “European Constitution,” which, among many other things, called for abolishing the national veto in more than 50 additional policy areas. But the ratification process ran into a roadblock in May and June 2005, when French and Dutch voters rejected the document.
Predictably, the authors of the European Constitution were unwilling to let democracy get in the way of their federal ambitions. Instead, they essentially shuffled some of the words, sentences and paragraphs of the document and reissued it in December 2007 as the Lisbon Treaty, in order “to avoid having referendums.”
The Lisbon Treaty, which obligates EU nations to surrender their sovereignty in many areas to centralized decision-making, was supposed to have been quietly rubber-stamped by the parliaments of all member states by the end of 2008. But once again, democracy got in the way, this time thanks to Ireland, where the constitution mandated a popular referendum.
Indeed, Ireland, which accounts for 1 percent of the European Union’s 500 million population, was the only EU member state to put the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum. And sure enough, in June 2008, Irish voters soundly rejected the document.
Unsurprisingly, the Brussels elite were outraged at the audacity of the Irish insubordination and demanded that Ireland hold a second referendum, one that would produce the “correct” answer. EU Thought Police were dispatched to warn the “extremely arrogant” Irish voters of the dire consequences they would face in the event of another ‘no’ vote. In October 2009, Irish voters succumbed to the pressure and produced the desired result.
The Lisbon Treaty is now set to take effect on December 1, 2009. But far from ushering in an era of promised transparency and unity, European elites are now squabbling over who will sit on top of the European edifice.
The main justification for the Lisbon Treaty has always been that it is needed to strengthen the role of Europe as an international actor. With this aim in mind, the treaty not only creates the two jobs of EU president and foreign minister, but it also establishes a European diplomatic corps complete with European embassies, as well as a European army.
For a long time, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was seen by many as the one candidate possessing the charisma and international clout necessary to make the EU presidency get noticed abroad. In the words of one of Blair’s supporters: “God knows what the Americans would do if we got [a] Belgian as European president. They already can’t be bothered with us most of the time.”
But European big shots like French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are having second thoughts about Blair. Evidently, they are afraid that Blair might overshadow them on the global stage.
In the absence of a consensus candidate, the contest has degenerated into a race to the bottom. In secretive backroom horse-trading, the center-right, which controls the European Parliament, has staked its claim to the presidency; the center-left will get the foreign policy job. There are now half a dozen or more contenders for both jobs. And the one thing all the candidates have in common is that they are virtually unknown outside of Europe.
The leading hopeful for the presidency is Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, whose biggest claim to fame is writing haiku poetry in his native Dutch. According to the London-based Economist magazine, Van Rompuy’s main foreign policy experience stems from his involvement in a Belgo-Dutch row over the dredging of the River Scheldt.
Fuelling suspicions among some euroskeptics that a vast federalist conspiracy is afoot, Van Rompuy recently was vetted by the secretive Bilderberg group of top politicians, bankers and businessmen. At a private gathering at the Castle of Hertoginnedal (the Valley of the Duchess) near Brussels, Van Rompuy made the astonishing admission that he wants to empower the EU with tax-raising powers in order to fund the rising cost of the EU bureaucracy and the welfare state. (Up until now, tax collection has been the exclusive domain of EU member states, which provide the funding for Brussels, and not the other way around.)
As far as the foreign policy post is concerned, the current frontrunner appears to be Massimo D’Alema, a former Italian communist who does not speak fluent English, the lingua franca of international diplomacy. His main qualification appears to be his disdain for the United States and Israel.
To be sure, the opaque process of choosing the EU’s new leaders has infuriated many Europeans, including Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a Latvian candidate for the presidency. She says the job search is being conducted with Soviet-style secrecy and contempt for the public. The EU, she says, should “stop working like the former Soviet Union ... in darkness and behind closed doors”.
The London-based Telegraph newspaper quotes another Eastern European official as complaining: “Trying to work out who is going to be President of the EU Council is not dissimilar to decoding who was in or out in the Kremlin in the 1970s. It seems strange to many of us that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall we have to dust off our Kremlinology skills here in Brussels.”
In the words of Denis MacShane, a British Labour politician: “This is not Europe’s finest hour.
Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group