The recent ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland brings the European Union one step closer to an overhaul of the way things work in Brussels. Once the treaty takes effect (and, despite some bellyaching from the Czechs, it most likely will), the EU will be governed by a new legal framework meant to streamline the decision-making and legislative processes. A European president will be elected, individuals will be appointed to negotiate on behalf of the entire EU, and the European Parliament will work hand in hand with national governments to make policy.
Many here believe that the treaty will finally allow the EU, as a single entity, to take a powerful and more forceful role in international affairs.
Change in Brussels is much needed. EU business moves at a snail's pace, slowed by an overly burdensome bureaucracy. The EU's legislative process is extraordinarily difficult to understand. Even EU insiders have a hard time explaining how policy is made. One member of Parliament from England I spoke with last year likened the EU's law-making process to a dentist appointment: an all-together unpleasant experience no one looks forward to.
However, if academics and journalists here are to be believed, formal adoption of the Lisbon Treaty will transform the EU into a dynamic actor in 21st-century international relations. Thorsten Benner and Stephan Mergenthaler, EU experts at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, have called for the creation of a European army, a seat for the EU at the G-20 and a more unified European front, with Germany and its strong economy at the lead.
Reporters and commentators across the continent are speculating that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be elected EU president, giving the post instant name recognition and credibility in diplomatic circles.
However, many of these hopes are simply unrealistic. An EU army might be raised, and a president will be elected, but EU history dictates that their roles would be poorly defined and lack power. Time and time again in recent years, and to the disappointment of many European continentalists, the major players within the EU have made clear that national interests will always come before European interests. The passage of the Lisbon Treaty does nothing to change this.
Three cases clearly illustrate the importance of national issues over the greater good of Europe. The first is the series of gas disputes between Ukraine and Russia. Russia's energy monopoly Gazprom and Ukraine have been fighting over energy prices for years. Before 2006, none of these disputes directly affected Western Europe.
That year, Ukraine, as the major transit country for Russian natural gas supplies to Europe, began to siphon off gas meant for European countries when Russia cut supplies to Ukraine. Western European countries, including Germany, saw their gas supplies drop. Realizing its vulnerability to Russia and Ukraine, Brussels began to panic. German Chancellor Angela Merkel went as far as to call for a common European Union energy policy to dilute vulnerability to Russian energy and garner negotiating leverage.
However, just as Merkel was calling for a common policy, the German government was approving the Nord Stream pipeline, which would run directly from Russia under the Baltic Sea into Germany, bypassing all Eastern European transit countries. The pipeline, once completed sometime in the next decade, will make Germany heavily reliant on Russian energy for decades. Berlin and Moscow argue that a pipeline that feeds energy directly into Germany eliminates transit risks associated with countries like Ukraine.
Members of the European Union in Eastern Europe were and remain strongly opposed to the pipeline, as they believe it makes them more vulnerable to "pipeline politics," or Russia's ability to affect political outcomes by using energy as leverage (An article in the Oct. 13 New York Times provides evidence of this divide).
Over the last three years, these realities have tainted European reactions to the Ukraine-Russia disputes. Western European countries like France and Italy, which have negotiated individual agreements with Russia to supply energy, side with Russia. Eastern European countries, whose role in energy transit will be minimized once the Western European pipelines are completed, side with Ukraine. In this situation, national interests are clearly the primary motivator. European interests are rarely, if ever, mentioned.
Another incident that illustrated the importance of national interests over European interests was the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the EU was united in its condemnation of what was widely perceived as Russia's asymmetrical use of force. However, just months after a unified condemnation of Russia, the EU member states were divided by national concerns. Germany, which has deep business ties with Russia, called for a normalization of relations between the EU and Moscow. Eastern European nations, on the other hand, said Russia's actions in Georgia proved that Moscow is willing to use force to reassert its Soviet-era sphere of influence.
Lastly, the recent sale of General Motors-subsidiary Opel has exposed fractures in European Union economic unity. Merkel lobbied hard for GM to sell Opel, which employs more than 50,000 people in Europe — with the majority of those workers in Germany — to a Canadian consortium that would save German jobs and benefit the struggling Russian auto industry. However, these benefits are likely to come at the expense of jobs in Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom, countries that are now threatening to ask the EU competition committee to determine if Merkel's lobbying for her preferred deal violated EU regulations.
In each of these three cases, EU member states' national interests have been the determining factor in how they have acted on the international stage. Membership in the EU was a secondary consideration at best. This has been the prevailing European reality since the end of the Cold War. In a multipolar world, individual European nations are pulled in a number of different directions by a number of factors that prevent them from having one, true, unified European interest.
Ratification of the Lisbon Treaty will do little to change this. Great Britain is not likely to abandon the pound and adopt the Euro if Tony Blair is elected European president. Germany is no more likely to send troops to Afghanistan under a European flag than it is a German one. And Poland's energy insecurities are unlikely to disappear because the European Parliament is more closely working with national governments to make policy.
Instead, once the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, the European Union should focus on the core competencies it has developed in the last 20 years and assert itself in areas where national leadership is lacking. For instance, the EU has had great success fostering free trade among member states and fostering economic growth in Western Europe. The EU should concentrate on extending these successes to members in Central and Eastern Europe, where economic growth has been tepid.
Expansion of economic growth across the Eurozone would help the EU to maintain its place as the world's largest exporter of goods. This is one instance in which a common EU policy benefits members; the EU as a whole has much more leverage in trade negations than any single European country. The new EU president should work to grow the EU's global market share and improve its global brand.
In addition, the EU has had humanitarian successes. The European Community Humanitarian Aid Office has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid over the years. What the EU lacks, however, is the capacity to engage in long-term humanitarian aid projects. The EU president, in conjunction with the parliament and its streamlined policymaking regulations, should work to create an EU entity that can confront long-term aid challenges.
Lastly, the European Union should work on improving border security. Its efforts to secure borders are led by FRONTEX, a security and intelligence apparatus meant to complement and coordinate member state border security efforts. However, since its creation in 2004, the group has faced numerous criticisms, ranging from accusations that it failed to consider asylum requests to a lack of transparency to charges of ineffectiveness. Improving FRONTEX's operation and management should be a top priority, as member states' efforts to stop illegal immigration are increasingly piecemeal and often uncoordinated.
A standing army, a credible head of state and a consistent foreign policy are all important to the success of a nation. However, they are not necessary for the success of the EU. What is important to its success is the continuance of trade, economic, humanitarian and immigration policies that simultaneously advance national and European interests. The EU president, be it Blair or someone else, should work to continue these successes and not waste EU resources on the work of nations.
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