Let me start by stating the controversial: the EU is not a great power, nor is it on the path to becoming one. This will disappoint friends of Europe who tend to take it for granted that the EU will take a seat at the high table in the new multipolar order.
Seen from the outside such ambitions seem reasonable. As it stands in 2011, the EU displays all the characteristics of a giant, except the outward trappings of power. Regardless of indicator, be it GDP, population, industrial strength – even combined force of arms – a united Europe would easily overshadow the other rising powers.
Yet, 2011 the EU finds itself in another depression. European integration has been a story in which sprints of intense activity have been followed by prolonged periods of inertia, followed by renewed optimism, followed again by disappointment. In 2011 the EU finds itself in another depression.
Over the past decade a new element of competition, of scarcity and volatility has made political time pick up speed, driving the emerging powers faster, higher and stronger. But not the EU. It has grown increasingly apparent that a weaker United States will not automatically translate into a stronger European Union.
The flurry of integration of the 1990s achieved some progress towards a ‘common’ foreign and security policy but important issues unresolved, namely delivering a workable political support system for foreign policy integration.
The inability to fund the venture, stemming in part from taking in 12, in a relative sense, underdeveloped new members without fundamentally changing the redistribution mechanism, and, finally, the lack of a EU raison d’état to inform policy, as illustrated by the lack of common EU positions on almost every single major foreign policy challenge.
Effectiveness is hampered by a ‘consensus-expectations gap’. There are particular concerns over its security and defence dimension where attempts at pooling resources and forming a political consensus have failed to deliver the results expected.
The ongoing shift in global power patterns, have been accompanied by a shift in EU strategic thinking. The great-power ambitions have been scaled down and replaced by attempts at ‘hedging’ vis-à-vis the leading powers, avoiding to ‘put all its eggs in one basket’.
On an operational level the track record shows that the EU’s effectiveness is castrated by a ‘consensus-expectations gap’, owing primarily to the lack of an effective decision making mechanism. The sum of these developments is that the EU is taking the place of a small power in the emerging multipolar international order.
The upcoming Polish Presidency has vowed to make amends. In a letter dated 6 December France, Germany and Poland have urged EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton to personally take charge of plans to boost military co-operation. The letter proposes triggering the so-called Permanent Structured Co-operation clause in the Lisbon Treaty under which militarily-advanced EU states can create an avant-garde group.
But it took the High Representative several weeks to reply, and when she did it was in vague terms. Perhaps because she knows that the problem is not capabilities, it is the lack of political will.
For better or for worse it would seem that no new surge of integration is forthcoming. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise that a union that for the most part is made up by small and middle sized players should take the strategic outlook of a small power.
In addition, there is the temptation of appearing insignificant. It is always tempting to let others expend blood and treasure in upholding the international system.
In the previous century Europe only just avoided perishing from great power politics and utopian ideologies, it would now seem that it opts for abdication. If the current path is continued the great decisions of the 21st century will be made other places than in Europe.
Published in The European 10.02-2011