Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wait a Minute...Herman Who?

Today, the news broke that the leaders of the twenty-seven EU member states selected the first full-time President of the European Council and the first permanent High Representative for foreign affairs.

If you are unclear about what these positions are, what they do and how the EU functions in general, well, join the club. But for a good introduction, click here.

Who are the lucky winners? Who are the latest unelected people to be chosen to influence policy and procedure in the EU, a regional alliance that has been growing in power and influence, most recently with the Lisbon Treaty?

Why, it was Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rampuy and EU Trade Commissioner Baroness Catherine Ashton, of course.

Don't panic. I had never heard of either of them before today myself.

The big talk in the run-up to this decision, and the position taken by the British government, was that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was all but a shoo-in for the job. Tony Blair...at least a guy that more people have heard of.

So, what happened? What led the leaders of the EU member states to choose two politicians who are virtual unknowns, who are thought to be "consensus builders," and neither of whom have much foreign policy experience?

Well, let's think about this.

It is no secret who are the "big dogs" when it comes to the member states of the EU. This position belongs to France and Germany, and most specifically, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy. These states and their leaders stand at the center of the "European project."

Why? Well, it is simple (at least to me). They both realize that to consolidate their relative positions economically and politically on the Continent, they need each other to survive. Furthermore, they need the smaller states of the EU to consolidate this position through offering attractive incentives (development money, union-wide institutions that could save individual states money) in exchange for tacit leadership by the larger states in the union.

What about Britain, then? To put it simply, the French and Germans don't trust them. The reasons are historical and, well, sort of cultural. Historical because there had been an aversion among British politicians to join the union and the corresponding rejections of British membership led by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960's. Cultural because, more than any other people who are members of the EU, the British really don't (and never have) considered themselves Europeans. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Britain is in Europe, but not of Europe.

So, back to today's decision (which was a unanimous one among the 27 member states). Merkel and Sarkozy knew that a big-name British politician like Tony Blair could prove to be much more of a problem than some Belgian guy and an EU commissioner who is a Brussels insider.

They also knew that in no way, shape or form do they have to give any part of a shit about what Gordon Brown, the current British PM, wants. It is pretty clear that Brown and his Labour Party will not be in power (or at least not in a majority in the House of Commons) for much longer. Brown pushed for his old boss Blair to get the job, but he really has no bargaining position.

What are the larger implications of this? For one, anyone who tries to tell you that the EU marks the end of old, nation-state based politics in Europe is just plain wrong. The EU is just another forum for the various states of Europe to seek their own interests. It doesn't get rid of the game; it just provides a different playing field.

Another larger point that this reinforces plays to the nature of the EU itself. I believe it is a fundamentally undemocratic institution and this decision just further proves that. This decision does nothing to make the EU's institutions more representative. All it does is preserve the status quo, mainly in favor of France and Germany.

Everything I say here is debatable, and I might well be wrong. What I do think I have right, though, is the notion that the states of Europe and their leaders will use international institutions to pursue the interests of their own states.

International relations theorists can say all they want about mid-level explanations of interstate relations, or cosmopolitanism, or cooperation. Perhaps I look at this with the jaundiced eye of the historian, but I just don't see that at work here. Feel free to prove me wrong.

Oh, and this destabilizes domestic politics in Belgium, but really, who gives a shit?

1 comment:

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

Yeah, I could really see no conceivable way that Blair would have been elected since the UK remains steadfastly outside of the larger European collective intelligence. That alone keeps him off the table.

Plus, like you said, there's enough historical biases that a British guy wouldn't be the first head of anything in Europe.

How long before Belgium is split into Flanders and Wallonia? We could summon Great Caesar's Ghost to tell us "Omnis Baelgica divisa est partes duas."

And, yes, I went a LONG way to work in both the Shakespeare reference and the Latin quote.