Europe’s Vision-Free Leadership

The selection of Herman Van Rompuy as president of the European Union’s Council of Ministers and of Lady Catherine Ashton as the EU’s foreign policy chief surely underlines the extent to which member states are in the driver’s seat in the EU. They manage its institutions in their own interest. The EU is no superstate striding bravely into a bright new dawn.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will not have to compete for the global limelight with any Brussels supremos. Germany will not be challenged to break out of its increasing introversion, no longer obliged to demonstrate its democratic postwar credentials by embracing the European cause at every turn. Britain can rest easy that its world role will remain the aspiring Jeeves of the White House.

The best that could come from the appointment of Europe’s two new low-profile leaders is that it leads to better and more coherent management of the EU’s business. Van Rompuy will be able to offer a longer view than that of a six-month national presidency. Ashton should be able to tie together the political and resource arms of Europe’s external policies.

Past experience suggests that there are five guidelines to follow if Europe wants a more effective presence on the world stage whenever foreign and security policy are at the top of the agenda.

First, the EU should dare to believe that what most suits Europe’s interests might also be best for its relationship with its closest ally, the United States. The EU should, for example, want to prevent the militarization of nuclear energy in Iran precisely because of its concern as Europeans, not because European countries are U.S. allies.

Second, EU rhetoric about its role as a U.S. global partner for peace should not stray too far from reality. It is not that Europe doesn’t spend enough on hard power, but what it does spend — about 200 billion euros ($300 billion) — is spent badly. The EU needs common defense procurement and harmonization to acquire the helicopters, transport aircraft, battlefield communications equipment and surveillance drones that are necessary for 21st-century operations.

Third, where Europe has a serious internal policy, it is easier to establish a more serious external policy. The best example of this is energy policy and Russia, which wants a sphere of influence around its borders.

Dealing with Russia has probably been the biggest failure in the attempt to make European foreign policy. To formulate such a policy, the EU needs to frame a single energy policy. Ashton will need to be firm in dealing with Russia and with member states who subordinate Europe to the commercial interests of their national energy companies.

Fourth, European external policy is most effective the nearer it is to home. The EU is at its best in its own neighborhood — and at its worst, too. The greatest success of Europe’s external policy has been EU enlargement. This promoted and consolidated regime change without the use of weapons, thereby stabilizing the European continent.

The job is not complete. The prospect of EU membership is at the heart of EU policy in the western Balkans, where it is starting to show (for example in Bosnia and Herzegovina) a dangerous disinclination to apply tough conditionality. The EU is committed to Ukraine’s “European vocation,” but not to its EU membership. Notice the difference.

The EU undertook more than four decades ago to negotiate Turkish membership once that country became fully democratic with an open economy and respect for human rights and the rule of law. For Europe to turn down Turkey would be tantamount to writing ourselves out of any serious script in global affairs. The EU would be rejecting a country that is an important regional power, a significant NATO member and a crucial energy hub. Europe would stand accused of burning, rather than building, bridges to the Islamic world. Unfortunately, Van Rompuy, an author and poet, has spoken out against Turkish membership in far cruder terms than one would expect from a gentle haiku writer.

My final guideline for policy is that Europe is not and will not become a superpower or superstate. Unlike the United States, the EU does not matter everywhere. It does not require a policy on every problem and every place. But where the problem affects much else and where the region is close to home, the union should have a policy that consists of more than waiting to agree with whatever Washington decides that its policy should be, as, for example, in the Middle East.

So what can the EU do to nudge things forward in a region where the United States is again engaged but not respected — and where Europe is neither? At the very least, the EU could set out its own policy, beginning with an effort to end the fragmentation of the Palestinians between the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Does it matter if Europe is not on the same page as the United States? Frankly, no.

A few weeks ago, when U.S. President Barack Obama had to choose between a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations or the celebrations in Berlin marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he chose to go to Asia. Will Europe do enough to change his mind the next time there is such a choice? As things stand, the EU is in danger of making Europe politically irrelevant, a successful customs union with a Swissified foreign policy and a group of fractious, vision-free leaders.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. ©Project Syndicate