Don’t Write Off the EU Just Yet

A funny thing happened on the way to the EU’s post-Lisbon era. While Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton have largely been invisible in the high-profile posts of president and foreign minister, the EU parliament decided to actually exercise some of its added powers.

A few days back, I mentioned a U.S.-EU bank data-sharing agreement that, under Lisbon, needs parliamentary approval to remain in force. (Technically, the measure is a temporary bridge agreement to continue a pre-Lisbon deal until a permanent agreement can be finalized.) Today the EU parliament decided by an overwhelming majority to block the measure.

What makes that outcome more noteworthy is that it comes after aggressive lobbying effort, not only from EU member governments, but also from the Obama administration:

The EU presidency’s offer follows a placatory letter sent by the U.S. administration on Friday in which Washington promised the assembly an “in-depth” briefing on the data that the U.S. mines and held out the prospect of “oversight possibilities” in a permanent deal.

According to the EU Observer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner both called EU officials and signed a letter to the president of the EU parliament.

Setting aside the merits of the issue — which revolve around security vs. privacy trade-offs — what’s striking is that in the same week that President Barack Obama decided to skip the EU-U.S. heads of state summit, his administration was breaking a sweat lobbying the EU parliament. And really, in the nine years I’ve been here, I’m not sure I’ve ever read of that happening.

What’s ironic is that so many people — myself included — who would like to see the EU become a more credible global actor have tended to imagine that happening in the very manner that most Europeans have now clearly rejected — namely, as a top-down directive from the political elites. To repeat what I wrote at the time of Van Rompuy and Ashton’s nominations, to expect them to transform the EU into a global power overnight is to ignore the fact that most Europeans do not want the EU to become a global power.

But I also wrote that evolution will occur as a result of the personalities that occupy the offices as well as the institutional power struggles that will arise. For now, Ashton seems content with being non-existent, while Van Rompuy seems to be preparing to operate invisibly. That leaves room to maneuver for EU Commission President Manuel Barroso, even if it creates confusion and annoyance for Obama and other non-EU heads of state.

What makes today’s vote significant is that a good deal of European “EU fatigue” has to do with a sense that the union does not really respond to popular concerns. But if the parliament — the only direct democratic institution of the union — begins to weigh in more heavily on EU affairs, it could captivate the popular imagination a bit.

That, in turn, could generate a more dynamic approach to the two higher-profile Lisbon positions. Because although the Stateside perception of the EU is as a “response” to the U.S. (as reflected by the EU-U.S. summit contretemps being cast as a major embarrassment and humiliation for the EU), EU politics have more to do with European power balances than U.S. observers care to admit. So a more assertive and — perhaps more importantly — a more responsive EU executive is probably more likely to come about as a result of the EU parliament threatenening long-accustomed institutional prerogatives than as a result of the U.S. continuing to treat the EU with long-accustomed disdain.

Either way, I’m changing my mind about changing my mind: The idea that the EU has stopped “becoming” is probably a bit premature.