The President of the European Council, to hold office for two and a half years, replaces the rotating six-month presidency held by a national leader, such as the high profile six months of the French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008.(l) The post of Council President was created by the newly ratified Lisbon Treaty whose aim is to strengthen the functioning of the European Union’s institutions now that it has 27 members with other states waiting on the doorstep.
The post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is not new. For the past 10 years it has been held by the Spanish diplomat Javier Solana, a dedicated European. Baroness Ashton who has been for the past year the European Commissioner for Trade is supposed to have more control over the European Commission’s diplomatic staff of some 8,000 members, active with large delegations at the United Nations in New York, Geneva and Vienna and with "embassies" in over 150 countries.
The President of the European Council is not "the President of Europe." His administrative function is more that of a secretary-general and will be largely devoted to organizing the meetings of heads of government every six months and the periodic meetings of other key national ministries, especially those of Foreign Affairs and of Finance. The President will also represent the European Union at ad hoc meetings such as those of the G20, the G8 or others. However Van Rompuy may use his behind-the-scenes negotiating talents to influence policy.
It is the European Commission, composed of 27 Commissioners – one from each member state – that is the true "government" of Europe. José Manuel Barroso from Portugal is the President of the European Commission and, in practice, is as close to being the "President of Europe" as the European Union provides for. Barroso has been President of the Commission for the past five years and has been chosen to continue for the next five.
The new Commission begins its work in February 2010. As is the practice, each commissioner must outline his policies and program to the European Parliament and answer questions. In theory, the Parliament could refuse the proposed Commissioner, but it very rarely happens. Sometimes questions concerning earlier incidents in a person’s political career are brought up, but the European Parliament works by consensus and compromise, and the new commissioners and their national histories are well known before they are presented to the European Parliament.
Some European Parliament members from Eastern Europe have attacked Baroness Ashton for having been treasurer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the 1970s and said that the CND had received funding from Soviet sources. However, these accusations are for home consumption for those segments of the East European population looking for the "Communist" past of people. Baroness Ashton’s earlier anti-nuclear weapon past will have no impact on her ratification by the European Parliament.
There were those who, wishing a stronger and more democratic Europe, had hoped that the European Council President and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs would be chosen after an open discussion as to their ideas and aims. However, especially for the President’s post, there had been months of quiet discussions followed by leaks to the press. At one point, the high profile Tony Blair was being discussed as a potential president. However, a high profile personality is not needed to organize meetings or for representation at meetings such as the G20 where all the decisions have been set in advance..
Both Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton are strong but colorless individuals, trained in economics which is what the European Union is all about – the incarnation of the quip "It’s the economy, stupid." Van Rompuy is an economist, the son of a well-known professor of economics. He is conservative but not dogmatic and will probably have some influence on long-range EU economic policy though short-term European economic policy is decided within the European Commission, where 21 of the 27 commissioners come from conservative national parties. There is not much likelihood of a clash. Baroness Ashton also has a university economics degree and was chosen to give a "socialist" balance to the most visible posts. However, her year as Commissioner for Trade gave no signs of radical economic policies.
The European Union has no "foreign policy" on political matters so that one should not expect European initiatives on such political matters as Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, or Iran. On all important political matters, the initiative is with the "big three" – Chancellor Angela Merkel, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown until the next UK elections. The three may consult among themselves, and Sarkozy likes to present the position of France as being that of "Europe", but the decisions taken are basically national positions nationally made.
However there are four issues that are basically economic but which have political aspects and these four will be the issues on which the European triumvirate of Barroso, Van Rompuy and Ashton will be judged.
The first major issue is the institutional relations with Russia, in particular concerning Russian energy sources and a certain degree of EU "energy security".
The second major issue which also concerns Russia is the policies toward the states of former Yugoslavia and Albania on the one side and the states of the former USSR on the other, in particular Moldova, closely linked to EU member Romania (2), Georgia, and Ukraine. Which of these states will become members of the EU, and if so, when? What will be the relations with the states that do not become members of the EU? Are there limits to EU membership, and what, if any, is the relationship between EU and NATO membership?
The third major issue is of a similar nature of membership or relations but needs to be looked at separately. This issue is the relations with Turkey. Although membership in the EU for Turkey was at the basis of EU-Turkish talks and on-and-off negotiations, there are those among the Turkish governing elite who believe that the EU is permanently hostile to Turkish membership. They believe that the alternative to EU membership lies in creating Turkish influence in the Middle East. This is the policy of what I call the "neo-Ottomans" and there are signs of this policy with improved relations with Syria, with Armenia, with the Kurds, and greater distance from Israel. If Turkey does not join the EU, what will be the institutional relations between Turkey and the EU?
The fourth major challenge remains the financial-economic recession, the high unemployment in most of the EU countries, the migration of people within the EU, and the desire of people from outside the EU to come to Europe for economic and political reasons. This fourth challenge is the daily work of the European Commission, but they have broad socio-political aspects that require top-level attention.
The tasks of the European triumvirate are crucial. They do not require high profile personalities, but they do require more dynamic leadership than has been seen in the past. There is now a slightly renewed membership in the European Parliament and some new faces among the 27 commissioners.
Will this be enough to move the EU policy forward? In presenting his guidelines for the next EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso said, "For Europe, this is a moment of truth. Europe has to answer a decisive question. Do we want to lead, shaping globalization on the basis of our values and or interests – or will we leave the initiative to others and accept an outcome shaped by them? The alternatives are clear. A stark choice has to be made. Either Europeans accept to face this challenge together or else we slide towards irrelevance."
Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva.
(1) Rene Wadlow, Unfinished Tasks for the President of Europe, January 6, 2009, Toward Freedom.
(2) Rene Wadlow, Moldova: Demonstrations Could Lead to Economic Changes, April 14, 2009, Toward Freedom.