October 16, 2008
Crises always have their positive by-effects. Who would have thought only a few months ago that the EU is able to play an effective role in the international arena outside its traditional competence for international trade!
And here we see the EU rising to the challenge of three major crises the world is confronted with.
- Its immediate initiative in early August has preserved Georgia’s independence and sovereignty.
- Its effective EU intervention in its financial markets after October 12 has decisively helped to restore confidence in the world financial markets.
- Its comprehensive climate package to be finalised before the end of the year will be decisive for a successful outcome of the international climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.
In acting so, the EU has demonstrated its capability of temporarily replacing fledgling US leadership.
The US has been conspicuously absent from international climate negotiations for almost a decade, thereby contributing dangerously to the acceleration of climate change.
Having been one of the driving forces of uncontrolled Georgian militarization and hubris, the USA would not have been the appropriate actor for negotiating the necessary cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia.
Lastly, the first US € 500 billion rescue package for its financial sector proved inadequate in volume and modalities to stem the downward spiral. It took a more targeted action by the EU 15`to calm the financial markets.
The effective showing by the EU is essentially due to political leadership and courage by the French Presidency. It was a fortunate coincidence that France – and more specifically President Nicolas Sarkozy – was at the helm of the EU during this semester. With a small, inexperienced new member state in the Chair, the outcome would hardly have been the same.
Several other factors also helped Europe to “lead”. Among these the existence of the common currency, effectively managed by the Central Bank and the Euro-Group, the political agreement on a 20 percent reduction of C02 emissions obtained in January 2007 under a resolute German Presidency, the specific British experience in addressing its banking crisis, and the close working relationship among Berlin, Brussels, London and Paris.
We should draw at least four conclusions from these fortunate circumstances.
· The EU needs a strong Presidency that is able to act decisively. The present system of rotating presidencies will not do in the future. Four fifths of the 27 member states do not have the physical possibilities to act as France has done. The full-time European Council President provided for under the Lisbon Treaty is therefore more urgent ever.
- The EU must urgently learn to formulate its views on all major international issues, from climate change to migration, regional crises, disarmament, population growth, nuclear non-proliferation or NATO enlargement. In its own interest, it should no longer patiently wait for Washington, Moscow or Beijing to take the initiative.
- Beyond its formal institutional structures the EU needs close informal links between what should become a sort of “inner circle” of a few key member countries and the Commission. It is among these that new ideas should be tested before any formal proposals and “plenary” discussions among the 27`. This is the only way to overcome the growing unwieldiness of the EU decision making process. This inner circle is no “Directoire”; it should not get any formal status. Its strength should lie in its informal links, comparable to the close Franco-German ties.
- It would be naïve to believe that the EU can replace the USA. But it should make sure in the future that its voice is being listened to in Washington. For this to happen, it will rapidly have to improve its foreign policy machinery, with the future “EU foreign minister” as a key player in trans-Atlantic relations.