The selection of two obscure figures as president and high representative of the new European Council was greeted by derision — or, worse, yawns — on both sides of the Atlantic.  But while the disappointment over what might have been is perfectly understandable, we should not lose sight of what already is.


An Opportunity Lost

The reactions to the selection of Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy and EU trade commissioner Catherine Ashton as president and high representative was almost universally hostile.  Most Europeans were baffled by the EU’s choice and most Americans were bemused.

The Economist‘s Charlemagne exclaimed “a decade of institutional wrangling for that?” The Wall Street Journal‘s editors dismissed them as “Europe’s Gray Mice.”  Time‘s Leo Cendrowicz dubbed them the “Bland Leading the Bland.”  The Telegraph‘s William Langley described them as “the EU’s perfect couple of nobodies” — and meant that as a compliment!

At the Business Times, Shada Islam lamented a “Wasted chance to give the EU much needed star power” and proclaimed “The new team’s selection says a lot about the EU and its vision (or lack of it) for the future” adding, “the world can rest easy: Europe will be putting domestic politics and internal cohesion above any international ambitions.”  Writing for the Irish Times, former EU commissioner Chris Patten agreed, saying the selection “surely underlines the extent to which member states are in the driver’s seat in the EU” and signals “The EU is no superstate striding bravely into a bright new dawn.”

Foreign Policy assistant editor Annie Lowrey helpfully explained, “The picks have a symmetry thought necessary in Europe: Rompuy and Ashton are male and female, from a small country and a large one, conservative and liberal.”

And I admit it, I joined in, declaring that this decision would “virtually assure that the EU president remains largely a figurehead, subservient to the heads of the member countries.”

Again, this combination of bemusement and frustration is understandable.  After all, Europe had the opportunity to select a vigorous leader like Tony Blair, who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with President Obama and finally provide that phone number Henry Kissinger was so elusively searching for more than three decades ago.  Instead, we get what EurActiv CEO Rick Zednik has termed the dawn of “the Obama-Van Rompuy era.”

At the same time, however, some perspective is in order.

“Europe” Remains an Ideal

While many of us were hoping for someone who could serve as Europe’s George Washington — a commanding figure who would shape the presidency in his own image — the more apt comparison is, as one of my blog commenters pointed out, Samuel Huntington, the first president under the Articles of Confederation.   While many on both sides of the Atlantic have been pining for a “United States of Europe” for decades, the truth of the matter is that the EU remains a glorified free trade zone inching toward being something more.

Yes, Europe has its own parliament, its own flag, its own currency, and now a new president.  But it’s not quite even a confederation, much less a unitary state.

Instead, we still have the three traditional major powers — the UK, France, and Germany — and twenty-something lesser actors on the world stage.

Did we seriously expect the Brits to back a powerful European president when they won’t even give up the Pound and join the Eurozone?  For that matter, how could the French and Germans have backed Blair when his country remains strongly Euroskeptic?

Recall, too, that the Lisbon Treaty was a backdoor solution created by EU bureaucrats frustrated with years of failure to advance the cause of Europe through the front door of national referenda.  It was the EU Constitution by another name.  With Lisbon, most member states could simply rubber stamp the agreement in their legislatures.  The sole exception was Ireland, which promptly defeated the measure in a referendum!  It took a global financial crisis, major arm twisting, and some light bribery to get the Irish to change their mind.

After the Rumpoy selection, many critics pointed out that the powers of the new president were incredibly vague.  But that was by design, not accident.  There’s simply no consensus on what “Europe” should do beyond the realm of trade and financial policy.  And while Ashton is not well known outside the EU’s inner circles, the Powers That Be have every reason to be confident that she’ll execute that consensus from her new perch.

But Europe Has Come a Long Way

While we’re a long way from the day when the world’s two dominant economies will be able to conduct foreign policy as unitary equals, the degree to which “Europe” is a reality now would have been a wild fantasy 20 years ago, let alone 40 or 60.

It’s almost a cliché at this point to note that Germans, French, and Brits have managed and unprecedented span without going to war against one another.  But that they’ve not only done that but worked together as part of the same military alliance for six decades is truly remarkable.

One need but look at where we were even in the early 1990s and the concessions made to further the European project have been extraordinary.

Recall that most of Europe — and not a few Americans — viewed a reunited Germany with dread.  Instead of a threat, however, it has become an even better partner.

Who could have imagined, when the European Exchange Rate Mechanism nearly collapsed after several constituent members adopted predatory policies out of domestic interest, that it would not only survive but be replaced by a common currency in less than a decade?  Let alone that the Germans would agree to move away from the vaunted Deutsche Mark to anchor said currency?

For that matter, it seems like just yesterday that the French were resisting all manner of regulation from Brussels in an effort to try and preserve its culture and its family farms.  Now, France is arguably the main cheerleader for a united Europe.

The Brits, of course, remain the main Euroskeptics among the major powers.  While no less a figure than Winston Churchill called for a “United States of Europe,” the UK has had to be dragged kicking and screaming most of the way. The predecessor European Coal and Steel Community was formed in 1951; England reluctantly joined only in 1973, by which point the ECSC had morphed into the European Communities.  Yet, while the Brits continue to worry over their sovereignty more than most — a tradition likely to continue with their election of radically Euroskeptic parties in the recent elections — they’re nonetheless slowly seeing the value of the project.   And Blair was a candidate for president and Ashton won the high commissioner post.

And, while the recent choice to go with low profile leaders likely means slower progress than some of us might have wished for, the very fact that these new offices exist is progress. Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow Borut Grgic argues persuasively that Ashton can help fix EU foreign policy, helping forge consensus on a whole range of thorny issues from the Balkans to Russia.

It’s been 48 long years since the Europe project kicked off.  Yes, we’re a long way from a United States of Europe.   Then again, the United States of America was proclaimed in 1776 but we did not have a true union until well after the Civil War ended in 1865.  And France, Germany, the UK, and the other 24 states of the EU have much longer histories than any of the several North American colonies had at the time of independence.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay was written a week ago for Foreign Policy but delayed because of the Thanksgiving holiday and the vagaries of publication schedules.  A shorter version is now online as “The Eurocrats Europe Needs.”