Stanley's blog

The following article appeared in the Beijing Review on 24 Decemeber 2009

Better Times Ahead
The Lisbon Treaty and a new EU hierarchy point to greater stability and a resurgent dynamism

By Stanley Crossick

The year 2009 was a difficult one for the European Union (EU). The European Parliament elections, held in June, are always disruptive. The results were disappointing with a low turnout and many eurosceptics elected.

The uncertainty of the Lisbon Treaty’s coming into force was an overhanging cloud for most of the year. The obstacles to this were the legal process before the German Constitutional Court and two processes before the Czech Constitutional Court, the second Irish referendum in October and the refusal of the Czech President Vaclav Klaus to sign the ratification instrument. But all these issues were satisfactorily resolved and the new treaty came into force on December 1.

The appointment of a “permanent” European Council president and a high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy (foreign minister in all but name) on November 19 ended a long period of speculation and media interest. Finally, the member state nominees for the new European Commission were announced and President José Manuel Barroso, with his five-year mandate already renewed, allocated the portfolios on November 27.

Thus the year ended on a high note—but the commissioners face parliamentary hearings in January and will not take office until February at the earliest. It is expected that European Parliament will object to more than one nominee.

The EU is effectively at the end of a long period of uncertainty. This uncertainty has led to a loss of momentum and dynamism in EU developments, making the union much more reactive than proactive. Its position on the world stage has been weakened. There has also been a considerable loss of morale among EU officials. But this has not materially affected legislation: It remains remarkable how the EU manages to adopt complex legislation, working in over 20 languages.

The dark cloud is lifting, the mood is brightening in Brussels and the union is looking forward more optimistically to the year 2010.

Demarcation of roles
It will take some months for the new European Commission team, the European Council president and the foreign policy chief to settle down. Although Herman van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton took office on December 1, when the new treaty came into force, the new commission will not take office until probably February 2010, after approval by the European Parliament.

This leads to a somewhat messy couple of months with, for example, former External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner taking responsibility for trade.

Many reactions to the appointments of Herman van Rompuy as president of the European Council and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief have been negative. They deserve further consideration.

There is a built-in conflict between the roles of European Council president and foreign policy chief. The Lisbon Treaty prescribes for the former a chairperson with an essentially internal job. The president also ensures the external representation of the EU on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the foreign policy chief. This is hardly consistent with the treaty provision that the latter represents the EU in matters relating to the common foreign and security policy, conducts political dialogue with third parties on the EU’s behalf, and expresses the EU’s position in international organizations and at international conferences.

Van Rompuy appears made for the basic job specification and his character suggests that he will concentrate on increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the European Council, and not seek to project himself on the world stage and relegate Ashton’s role. Ashton will not seek to emulate Javier Solana and is expected to focus initially on building and organizing the new diplomatic corps—the European External Action Service. This task is both difficult and important. The significance of the new service will be influenced by the caliber of secondees from member states and the relationship between the service and national diplomatic corps.

Although neither Van Rompuy nor Ashton has much international experience, both have been effective in domestic politics and Ashton has done well as the EU trade commissioner. Both appointees are well suited to work closely with each other and with European Commission President Barroso. They are hardworking and are likely to be effective in agreeing a sensible demarcation of their roles.

There is a good argument for saying that two low-key appointees are more likely to construct the necessary basis for a stronger and more unified role for the EU on the world stage. High-profile appointees would have put the leaders of the big member states on their guard. Remember foreign policy is the only major policy area, in which these leaders can appear to wield international influence. If all goes well, a high profile foreign policy chief will be acceptable in 2015.

The European Commission comes out of this new arrangement in a strengthened position. Barroso is well known and established, having served for five years as its president. Ashton was a commissioner under his leadership and is now vice president. Van Rompuy is not a forceful person and an integrationist.

The real test
The real test of further integration will come in internal affairs—the future of the single market, in particular in financial services. The single market is the EU’s greatest success and the foundation of today’s EU. It is inevitably strained in difficult economic times, particularly when member states wish to give financial support to domestic industry. This is frequently in conflict with the treaties which lay down the basic principle that state assistance which distorts or threatens to distort free competition is incompatible with the common (i.e. internal) market and is illegal.

Furthermore, there are serious divisions over how to regulate financial services in the wake of the financial and economic crisis. The fundamental division is between France and the UK, over whether the legislation should be “heavy” or “light” and to what extent the industry should be controlled at European and national levels.

There are fundamental differences in approach, exacerbated by the British belief the French want to weaken London as a financial center. This is not in French or European interests, but has been fed by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s irresponsible outburst on the appointment of Michel Barnier as commissioner responsible for the internal market and services:

“Do you know what it means for me to see for the first time in 50 years a French European commissioner in charge of the internal market, including financial services, including the City [of London]?” “I want the world to see the victory of the European model, which has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism.”

He gave two wrong signals. First, that the appointment ensures the “European model,” or rather the French model, will be the future blueprint, because of the appointment of Barnier. Second, that Barnier alone decides on the relevant legislation. This kind of public statement does not help Sarkozy achieve his declared objective, as it heightens the guard of the British and riles other would-be supporters.

It also makes life more difficult for Barnier, who as a former commissioner well knows that commissioners do not represent their country nor take instructions from its president. Any legislation will require support within the European Commission services, extensive consultation, an impact assessment, an agreed draft, approval by the full college of commissioners, adoption by qualified majority of the members states in the European Council, and of course adoption by the European Parliament.

Worst of all, Sarkozy’s outburst plays into the hands of critics of European integration. It’s this kind of member state leadership that makes integration more difficult. Unfortunately, Europe currently has too many weak national leaders.

The European Parliament is the biggest institutional winner as its powers have been materially increased by the Lisbon Treaty. The main integrating force has historically been the European Commission, with the European Parliament’s support. The extent to which they pursue integration together, and the extent to which European Parliament will (wrongly) regard the European Commission as a competing institution remains to be seen.

The EU had a poor 2009 but there is hope that, following the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, and the settling down of the new team, dynamism will return. However, poor economic conditions never bode well for integration and too many member state leaders prefer inter-governmentalism to integration.

Notwithstanding these negative elements, effective leadership from Brussels can drive the EU down the road to further integration.

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  1. Raff: three months on only allows some preliminary comments.
    The period of uncertainty has no ended as the EEAS is subject to an unfortunate turf war between the Commission, Member States and Parliament. It could well take several more months. I agree with Parliament that there should be deputies but not a secretary general. The likely delay will cause many day-to-day problems
    Van Rompuy is doing well.
    Ashton is doing badly. She lacks poltical feel and here supporting team is unimpressive as a whole, with insufficient EU and FP experience
    The manner of the appointment of the EU ambassador to Washington was wrong, breaking the spirit of the new treaty. The Commission effectively appointed him, without consultation. The impression is that it was due to nepotism. John Bruton should have been succeeded by a high level external appointment.
    Barroso, who has emerged much stronger, is too preoccupied with his personal position.
    I’m not worried about the Franco-German ‘conflict’ over services.
    I’ve already criticized the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Barnier and Faull. And it is ridiculous that the latter has still not moved to his new DG position.
    Germany worries me more. Merkel took one month to agree the position on Greece taken just adopted by the European Council, although the solution was on the table from the outset.
    National interest is properly very important but solidarity was the glue holding the Member States together.
    We continue to suffer from poor EU and Member State leadership.

  2. Sir, many thanks for these detailed comments. Ashton is a real problem then, as in foreign policy terms it is the EEAS which is really going to be the driving force behind Europe’s future position in teh world, and she is meant to be behind it.

    Am I also to read correctly that you blame her for the appointment to Washington? I understood from your other writings that in fact this was more a case of Barroso grabbing power while he still could.

    Finally, I await eagerly to hear your reactions to the cancellation of the regular EU-US Summits. Is this merely an irrelevance or more?

    Thanks again, Raff

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