Halting Europe’s decline

After Ireland followed Amy Winehouse’s example and voted «No, No, No» to the rehab of the Lisbon Treaty, which had promised to rescue Europe from its institutional navel-gazing, the reactions have been predictable: confusion from Europe’s leaders, Schadenfreude from the Euroskeptics and pessimism from Europhiles like Paddy Ashdown, who thinks the crisis could be «the beginning of the end of the EU as we know it.» But before Europe returns to stale arguments between Euroskeptics and their counterparts, it is worth remembering why European leaders promoted the Lisbon Treaty in the first place. They did not do so because they are undemocratic. They did not do so because, with a few exceptions, they seek a United States of Europe. They did so because in today’s world, European governments face challenges to protect their citizens and promote their well-being, which they cannot, by themselves and acting alone, address. The latest IMF data show that Europe is losing financial and economic ground to China, Russia, India and the United States. Even the «big four» – Germany, Britain, France and Italy – look small compared to China and the United States. In 2013, the disparity will be even greater. And by 2050, according to Goldman Sachs, the gap will be truly vast: China’s annual economic yield may be comparable to that of the European Union and the United States combined. The overarching trend is clear: the decline of Europe’s influence in and on the world. If left uncorrected, what will this mean in the long term? A greater diffusion of power and decreased support for a rules-based multilateral system and international norms, such as human rights, at a time when the world is moving to a no-polar setup. To make it clear: Unless the states of the EU-27 work together, they will not be able to address many of their own problems or those of the world. At Bali, the EU arrived with an offer to reduce by 20 percent greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Had European governments brought their own rag-bag set of targets, none of these would have had the weight of the EU’s single target in setting a world standard and push for an agreement at the UN conference. The same is the case at the UN. When Europe negotiates and votes as a bloc, it can push its agenda. From the 1997-8 General Assembly session to that in 2006-7, the level of voting coincidence with common EU positions ran at around 80 percent. Vis-a-vis China, only when the EU acted together – spearheaded by Javier Solana, France, Britain and Germany – was it possible to get Beijing to join with the EU (and US) in the UN Security Council and censure Iran. Often, of course, the EU acts with headline-grabbing disunity. From the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s to the ongoing back-and-forth on Serbia’s EU accession, the Balkans are littered with the effects of EU disarray. Over Kosovo, the EU split between those who wanted to acknowledge the state’s independence and those against. The result: a weak and ill-equipped justice-and-police mission with no political top-cover, an emboldened Serbia, and strained UN-EU relations. But this only confirms the need for the EU to cooperate more effectively to achieve each country’s aims. Fine, say some, but what is wrong with the status quo? A lot actually. Who thinks the EU’s division over Kosovo has been helpful? Who thinks that Europe’s reluctance to help NATO’s ISAF mission does anyone any good? Who thinks EU disunity over Iran’s nuclear program will encourage Tehran’s regime to halt its illegal activities? Who believes that a divided Europe is the best place to greet a new US president? Few of those who follow world affairs – and have an eye on the trend lines – think the status quo is functional. This means that Europe’s leaders should think of ways for the EU to work more effectively. If they fail to do so, they would fail in their duties. In the Lisbon Treaty they gave it their best, but created an incomprehensible, unreadable set of reforms that was unlikely ever to be accepted by all of Europe’s citizens. Now that it has been rejected by the Irish it is their duty to come up with something new. If and when it is evident that the Lisbon Treaty is dead – for now it is too early to know – two key options are available: a minimalist and a maximalist one. Minimally, European leaders should think about ways of improving the Union’s foreign policy instruments. Many of the changes could probably be created without a Treaty and through Council and Commission decisions. But a more maximalist option would be to push ahead with a multi-speed Europe. Multi-speed not in the sense of fast/middle/slow; rather, multi-speed in the sense of overlapping ellipses of cooperation. This is not the same as consigning Europe to fragments – because the key ellipses (e.g. the euro, Schengen) expand over time until they come to cover all European countries. Both options would be democratic: Let us not forget that millions of Spaniards voted for the Constitutional Treaty and their views must count as much as the Irish. Naturally, both options will have their detractors too. But failure to act on one or the other – and thus create an open, outward-looking global Europe – would be to fail in the most democratic of duties: to act in ways that would protect Europe’s citizens. Ulrike Guerot and Daniel Korski are senior policy fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations.