Friday 20 November 2009

The new EU: First analyses

Yesterday evening I have commented on the van Rompuy/Ashton decision, and the main point to highlight is that I was right with my prediction on Wednesday about how the result would look in terms of the profile of the persons.

Now the time for complaints is over for a moment, it is time go into the analysis.

Having seen the press conference of Reinfeldt, Barroso, van Rompuy, and Ashton yesterday evening one could already see how the new EU will look like:

  • The rotating Council presidency (see their coverage) will lose importance, it will be sidelined in public appearances, as Reinfeldt was sidelined yesterday evening.
  • The European Council President will hide himself behind pre-fabriqued speeches changing languages every minute to confuse interpreters. He will try to keep invisible, filling his role as moderator, as European Council General Secretary.
  • "Cathy" Ashton, the "Foreign Minster" will be responsible to speak in foreign policy matters, she will be having the telephone that Hillary Clinton will call when Obama wants to know whom to talk to in the EU. Nevertheless, the personality of van Rompuy will probably leave Ashton with much more freedom and a much stronger role than any other European Council President would have been doing. Maybe I am mistaken, but for Ashton, if she knows how to use her position, this might actually by a good thing, although I am not sure that she will be able to handle large diplomatic service. And in the press conference yesterday it was clearly said that she would be responsible (just) for the day-to-day work.
  • The clear winner of yesterday night was Barroso and the European Commission. You could see it in his eyes, in his smile, in his gestures. He was handing a present to Reinfeldt that looked like he said: Thanks for being here and helping me, now go and leave. Van Rompuy is even less a communicator than Barroso and he won't have a large administration to support him, so he won't be a threat for Barroso. Ashton is too new and she will be below Barroso in the Commission hierarchy, so Barroso knows that he'll keep a strong influence on foreign policy, too, while having the better networks in Brussels and in the world to get decisions that fit his policy preferences. In the future, Ashton will have to deal the problematic and conflictual work in foreign policy while Barroso will come and appear whenever it suits him - he'll probably be much more visible than in the past.

In this regard one could say that after yesterday's decision we might see a much clearer division of the EU into an intergovernmental and a supranational part. By choosing weak personalities for their domain(s), the governments made clear that where they govern, they don't want to be disturbed by supranational elements (like brilliant personalities working in favour of the EU).

But they also didn't put up a strong personality that could overshine the supranational institutions - the Commission and the Parliament - or their leaders. They have thus opted to keep their governmental strength in their national hands instead of projecting them on the EU level with the risk to loosing them to the personalities they chose.

The new EU will hence probably see an even sharper division between its two poles, and the question will be who will win the fight with what means or whether this will just bring the Union to a new equilibrium - interesting months and years to come.

PS.: And just not to be mistaken: I don't blame van Rompuy & Ashton for who they are and I wish them good luck for their jobs. When I complained yesterday this was rather against the choices of the heads of state and government. The two newcomers will have to show their abilities or (non-)impact over the next months.


Slartibartfas said...

I am cautiously optimistic about the appointments. That may have to do that I as a federalist am not happy about the Council trying to push back the supranational part of the EU. With Blair such a risk would have existed (or alternatively his ego would have lead to a deadlock within the Council)

Van Rompuy seems to be rather a federalist as well, sees his job as one of a chairman so will help the Council to run smoother without undermining the other institutions.

Mrs. Ashton may be a mysterious figure yet, but my opinion about her improved quite a bit when I heard, that in the short time as a trade Commissioner she did not only strike out a free trade deal with south Korea (something that made news even in US papers) and China but she has very good chances of bringing the decade old banana trade war to an end. That does not only sound like she been involved already in foreign relations pretty heavily in this short time, but also that she could be a skilled negotiator.

Last but not least, I agree with you. This was a very good day for Barroso, I think one could see it in his eyes. I actually like that he seems to be actually the winner of the game. He has the strongest democratic legitimation of all these three offices and is the most indpendent from the Council. This also is good news for the Parliament as well.

french derek said...

I hope you're right about Baroness Ahston, slartibartfas. I do wonder how she's going to handle Putin on energy supplies, or China in direct negotiations on climate-change, etc. Not as easy as delivering judgements from Brussels - this will be hard-nose politics.

Slartibartfas said...

Only time will tell. I know only rumors as well.

Another rumor says however that Mrs Clinton is getting along pretty well with her and some chief trade negotiator of the US is said to respect her very much. There are rumors that she is charming but also tough in negotiations.

As I have said, just rumors. We'll see if they are true.

Jason D. Reader said...

I think the choice of Van Rompuy and Ashton are politically brilliant choices in the sense that the expectations for Van Rompuy and Ashton are now so low that any measure of success for either of them will be a coup for the EU. If the heads of state had picked a strong personality like Blair and Blair failed then the image of EU would be tarnished. Besides which, no one had ever heard of Barack Obama before his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I think it is prudent to give Van Rompuy and Ashton space to define their respective roles in the Leviathan that is the EU.