What we know as the European Union started off in 1950 as the European Coal and Steel Community, when six countries centered on France and West Germany began sharing economic resources in the years after World War II. While aiming to prevent a repeat of Europe’s 20th Century wars, thinkers behind the project hoped that such links would in time lead to a European state.
Jean Monnet was the intellectual driving force. In 1957, a year before the ECSC became the European Economic Community (EEC), he wrote to a Dutch politician saying, “The current communities should … lead us to European economic unity. Only then would the commitments make it fairly easy to produce the political union which is the goal.”
Helped by a massive U.S. military commitment, war was avoided and the USSR kept at bay. Living standards shot up, and in 1973, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark joined, followed by Spain, Greece and Portugal. But the incremental, stealthy concentration of power in Brussels continued. In 1987, the powers of the EEC were enhanced by the Single European Act, which established a common internal market. After this, in 1992, the European Union was set up. A single currency, the euro, was introduced in 2000, and in 2005 membership jumped to 27 countries as former Soviet bloc countries joined.
However, E.U. elites went for broke after 2000, drafting a European Constitution even as some government leaders claimed that a European state was a pipe dream. The document was rejected in France and the Netherlands, but many of the reforms of the Constitution were implemented by the Lisbon Treaty. This rebranding meant that the French and Dutch would not vote again, but the Irish rejected the Treaty, in what E.U. elites saw as an insolent slap in the face after years of E.U. (i.e. German taxpayer) subventions to the Irish economy. Never mind that the Irish fuelled their boom by using a low corporation tax to coax U.S. investment, and then blew it by getting into a U.S.-style housing market and banking swindle. Treaty advocates ignored statistics showing how Ireland’s export-driven boom petered out after 2000 when it joined the euro, leaving the sham property bubble as the sole source of growth. Last year Ireland passed the Treaty amid a severe economic downturn, enabling the pusillanimous Dublin government to collude with the European Commission in the blatant “Say no again and Ireland = Iceland” arm-twisting of the Irish voter.
With Lisbon in the bag, the European Union was given the legal status of a state for the first time, even though many treaty advocates denied that this would be the case. For example, the European Parliament, which hitherto was comprised of “representatives of the peoples of the States brought together in the Community” is now comprised of “representatives of the Union’s citizens.” A new diplomatic corps will staff the bevy of new E.U. embassies being opened. Lisbon shifted more power away from nation-states to Brussels in areas such as defense, security, foreign affairs, criminal justice, judicial cooperation and energy. These are spheres in which the United States—whose former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously complained that he didn’t know who to call when he had speak to “Europe”—has long been seeking closer cooperation with European countries.
You would think the United States now would be delighted to see one voice representing the continent on such matters. Not so, not least as it is still not clear whom to call. President Barack Obama will not attend the next E.U.-U.S. summit, an unprecedented snub to E.U. top brass.
According to U.S. government statements, he is as confused as everybody else by the new layers of bureaucracy and administration. The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to “streamline” this, really a EU-phemism for a power-grab. The Treaty created a new E.U. president and foreign minister, putting faces to the new E.U. “super-state” trimmings. But then E.U. elites mystified people by selecting an obscure Belgian named Herman van Rompuy for the first job, and Baroness Ashton, a British Labour politician with no foreign policy experience, for the second, passing over Tony Blair in the process. Lisbon was also meant to make the European Union more accountable and democratic, but the two were picked in a conclave-like setting with no public input or foreknowledge.
As for streamlining, the European Union still has its six-month revolving member-state “presidency,” currently held by Spain; the European Commission has had a separate President for many years, who sits in on Council meetings; and now there is President Herman.
Obama might have other reasons for skipping the meeting. European Obamamania has not translated into more European troops in Afghanistan or a more decisive stand against Iran, and given that Obamamania did not prevent Euro-elites from lambasting the U.S. president for his part in the Copenhagen climate change fiasco, he might not see the point in tarnishing his hope and change image further by association with the vainglories and resentments of the old continent. But it’s not his old continent, to be fair, even if he was talked up as a sort of ‘”European” President, with “European” ideas about how to govern America. French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked, “Est-il faible?” (Is he weak?) after seeing Obama in action at the United Nations.
Ironically, despite desperately seeking the power and status of a formal state, the European Union hopes to showcase and promote a sort of “post-modern, post-statist” diplomatic model for the rest of the world, where complex institutional links across borders would overcome nation-based rivalries and disparities. As they are supposed to have done within the E.U., or so goes the spin put out by Brussels’ multi-billion euro “communications” directorate, in a way, the European Union is something like the political equivalent of EU-daimonia.
In a world of rising powers, and new challenges that require decisive action, this self-regarding naiveté assumes that the likes of China, India, Russia and of course the United States see the world in the same way. They do not, and ascendant China in particular sees these “linkages” as western conspiracies seeking to encumber Beijing with additional expense and obligation, to halt its rise to global prominence. Even on climate change, a postmodern international challenge, the green-obsessed European Union has flopped. China, India and others completely ignored the E.U. at the recent Copenhagen climate summit, even though (or maybe because) Brussels-style policy-wonk babble dominated the summit communiqués.
In their haste to get the Lisbon Treaty passed, Europe’s heads of government may have skimmed the vast document, which, amid a few glaring admissions, hides its transfer of power to the E.U. amid a thicket of insomnia-curbing verbiage. Before the first Irish vote on Lisbon, Prime Minister Brian Cowen admitted he had not read it, an act of unwitting sabotage from an ardent Treaty proponent. And to settle the catfight conundrum of whom President Obama would meet at the E.U.-U.S. summit (if he hadn’t already cancelled), Mr. Van Rompuy insisted that he take the lead, while blaming the Spanish government for confusing the Americans. The Spanish still see it as a member-state prerogative to host such events as the now-moribund U.S. summit, with the host prime minister or president representing the European Union. Maybe they did not read the Lisbon Treaty before signing it, or are in denial, as clearly the new E.U. president would be the main man.
When E.U. heads of government met recently to try fix the economic crisis affecting its Mediterranean members, Mr. Van Rompuy initially sought to hold the summit in an old Brussels palace, summoning heads of government in the style of an old Habsburg emperor calling an assembly of his provincial nobles. Despite a multitude of member-state economies that differ from each other greatly, Mr. Van Rompuy hopes to lead plans for “economic union” by 2020, yet another upgrade of E.U. powers that was not on the table when the Lisbon Treaty was being pushed through.
No doubt Mr. van Rompuy and like-minded thinkers see a need to act decisively amid intensified economic trouble across the continent. With Greece on the brink of meltdown, and markets taking bets against the single currency, a failed euro would in turn undermine the grander ambitions held—and usually disguised—by E.U. elites.
But then, such troubles might provide the rationale for the sort of closer union Mr. van Rompuy seeks—dressed up as the need for “pan-European economic discipline” or some such. And President Obama’s apparent confusion might just provide the cover needed to push the president of the new E.U. state onto the world stage as the one voice representing the “Union’s citizens.”