This was never the job designation, but someone like Blair (whose candidacy we successfully scuppered) could have made it easy to pretend otherwise. The big US media have decided to mostly ignore the nominations (they barely get a mention, at this point, on the websites of the NYT or the WSJ), feeding the irrelevant and self-obsessed Europe narrative. (Maybe the media are also frustrated that the summit ended quickly, and prevented "Europe in crisis" headlines...)
Amongst the smarter comments, one can note Daniel Cohn-Bendit's lament that European leaders have really tried to made the inter-governmental approach dominant over the community approach, or the FT's more thoughtful (if side) acknowledgement that both are regarded as competent and popular.
Amongst the more relevant lessons here, I would note the following:
- European institutions are largely dominated by the Christian Democrats. With Jerzy Buzek at the helm of the European Parliament, and Barroso at the European Commission, the right-wing formally has 3 jobs, and it can be argued that Ashton is from NuLabor, thus barely on the left. The left may complain, but this largely reflects recent elections in various European countries;
- the big, mostly-ignored, consequence of these nominations is that the UK will not get the Commissioner in charge of banking reform; that may in the end be the most momentous EU job decision, especially if Frenchman Michel Barnier (someone likely to push a more regulatory agenda, and not just in the banking sector) gets the job, as Le Monde has announced;
- by focusing on low-key, competent persons for the two jobs, in the current absence of a consensus on the underlying issues, Europe gives itself a chance to avoid big clashes in the future (it's not hard to imagine Blair and Sarkozy saying completely opposite things on the next big international crisis, triggering further headlines of Europe's irrelevance and inability to get its stuff together);
- similarly, by choosing people that can get on their jobs (van Rompuy the consensus builder amongst ego-driven big names, as he did in Belgium, Ashton as a fighter for common positions, as she was doing as trade commissioner) these choices are in line with the Treaties that created the positions, and reinforce the concept of the EU as process-driven.
The nature of the EU as a big consensus-building, rule-spewing technocratic bureaucracy annoys (or is dismissed by) the traditional analysts of international relations (who want to count divisions, or admire swaggering leaders) who contemptuously see it as weakness and fundamentally underestimate (or deny) how successful it has been.
Cohn-Bendit's argument is correct as far as it goes, but I don't think strong persons (even with federalist backgrounds) in these jobs would have helped - given the work they are supposed to do, they would have fostered conflict and crisis more than anything else. Committed Europeans should focus now on the European Parliament, which has been granted new powers under the Lisbon Treaty, and should go ahead and use them smartly.
The main point, in the end, is that Europe does not need validation from the outside. A gallic shrug is the appropriate response to concern trolling about 'stopping traffic' in Beijing. Europe is not about being the biggest dick around, but about creating peace and prosperity within its borders. If it wants to be heard by others, it needs to act in ways that matter to others. Rules imposed on companies that want to do business in Europe is a proven path; creating and abiding by international treaties is nother. The secret is simple: speaking with one voice is the only thing needed - but that requires not a single spokesperson, but a single position (and thus a process to get there). The new job-holders might actually help get there in a low-key manner. Better a competent nobody than a granstanding war criminal. If that dooms us, so be it.
See also our extensive press review and commentary on the same topic.
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