The EU Chooses Continuity

A couple quick thoughts on the “unknowns” named yesterday to the new Lisbon-created EU positions. To begin with, despite all the talk the last few months about the “EU president,” it’s clear that the EU heads of state decided to stick with the language of the treaty and name a president of the European Council. The same holds true for the post referred to as the EU foreign minister, but whose official title is EU high representative for common foreign and security policy.

Both of the appointees, Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as EU president and Britain’s EU Trade Commisioner Catherine Ashton as EU foreign minister, are more administrators than executives. Despite their respective titles, the more significant impact will probably be felt in Ashton’s case, since her term is five years, as opposed to 30 months for Van Rompuy. More importantly, she will be heading up a new institution with actual personnel and a budget. So a “bigger” personality would have been able to shape it more dramatically. Significantly, her appointment must still be approved by the EU parliament, so there could be some drama left in the process.

The initial media reaction is one of disappointment (Der Spiegel here, Le Monde’s roundup here.). But I’d argue that the initial media reaction is misguided. And I say that as someone who has high hopes for the further emergence of the EU as a global actor.

The problem is that it’s hard to square yesterday’s criticisms of the undemocratic selection process with today’s criticisms of the continuity reflected by the appointments. And that holds even more when you consider that the passage of the Lisbon Treaty itself was problematic from a democratic point of view. The only country to hold a referendum on the treaty had to vote twice to get it passed. And the decision to pass it by legislative vote in the other 26 countries was driven by the French and Dutch having voted down the EU constitutional referendum in 2005.

In other words, as of now, a popular mandate for “more Europe” doesn’t really exist. So as much as bold appointments would have satisfied those — including myself — who hope to see a more supranational EU enter the global stage, we are a minority right now. Better to transition more modestly, letting the transformative potential emerge more organically.

As the Spiegel article points out, both Van Rompuy and Ashton are already experienced as “caretakers,” having taken over their current posts in mid-term from their predecessors. And in many ways, that’s what they will be functioning as in the new ones. If demand for more Europe is truly there, it will emerge as these two “unknowns” clarify the limits and possibilities of the positions over time.