When President Barack Obama chose to pull out of the planned EU-US summit in Madrid in May, many saw it, not entirely unreasonably, as a sign of Europe’s diminished status in Washington.
Part of the reason for this is uplifting: Europe is no longer the hotbed of war and political extremism that it was for much of the 20th century. A continent that is largely free, tranquil and united in the framework of the European Union is less likely to preoccupy policy makers in Washington than more troubled parts of the world.
But Europe’s diminished centrality also reflects weakness. The 21st century will be shaped elsewhere. The European integration project is spluttering. There is little willingness to integrate further, and questionable commitment to live up to pledge already made.
The euro crisis has shown the dangers of partial integration. With a common currency but divergent fiscal policies, irresponsible countries can cause havoc for their more virtuous peers. Lacking a sufficiently strong institutional framework to deal with the problem, the Union has been scrambling to find a coherent response for much of the past year. It remains to be seen whether the euro will survive.
But Europe was struggling even before this economic crisis. Popular support for the EU remains at historic lows. A Eurobarometer survey conducted in May 2010 found that support for the EU at just 49 percent, four points lower than a year earlier.
Much has changed since February 2003, when people across Europe took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to protest against the Iraq war. The European public, so often theorised in academic papers, seemed to be coming into being. And it was looking to the EU to give them voice.
When national governments did not have the will to defy the US, the EU could have given voice to what an overwhelming majority believed. But it was not to be. The EU’s leaders failed to channel that popular energy, choosing instead to pour their efforts into a constitutional treaty that the voters would later roundly reject.
When the constitution was recycled as the Lisbon Treaty, there was no willingness to fill the new posts of European Council president and foreign policy high representative with big names. A German newspaper dismissed the appointments of Catherine Ashton and Herman van Rompuy as Selbstverzwergung – roughly translated as “to turn oneself into a dwarf”.
The past decade has shown that there is policy space for greater EU engagement in European security. Yet the EU’s accomplishments in this area have been variable to say the least, and it has earned a reputation for token engagement and dithering.
The EU now finds itself in a difficult position. Parts of the building have been constructed assuming that other parts would be added later. So there is a common currency but no common financial policy, a common defence policy but no collective defence.
It seems apparent that the EU will remain an unfinished construction for the foreseeable future. With its soft power and capabilities, the Union is unlikely to play the role of a great power any time soon. Rather, it is emerging as a medium-sized player in the emerging multipolar international order, that is, a small power.
The main reason for this is that Europeans have never been fully committed to the EU. Europe’s leaders know this, which is why EU matters are rarely put to a referendum. But political elites are as apathetic as voters. Prime ministers still feel a stronger bond to the sovereignty of their national states than they care to admit in polite company.
Many like the thought of having the weight to 27 states behind their own national interests, but squirm at the thought of having those interests defined in concert with 26 other countries. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the idea of a united Europe has lost some of its capacity to inspire the Union’s citizens. Power, like beauty, exists primarily in the eyes of the beholder.
A Europe of uneven economic integration and political and military shortcomings will have a weaker voice and play a smaller role in international politics. A two-pillar transatlantic structure, composed of the EU and the United States bound together by NATO, is no longer probable. The US will relate to its friends bilaterally. These “coalitions of the willing” will sometimes include European countries, but the US will not see the EU as a collective. Europe’s time as a superpower in a multipolar world order seems to be over before it began.
Publisert i ESharp JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2011