Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Brussels Unbound -- Thoughts of Jeffrey Cimbalo

From the forthcoming Summer 2006 issue of The National Interest:


America is courting a host of difficulties by interacting with the EU and its subordinate bodies, rather than dealing bilaterally (or in ad hoc conjunction) with EU nations and their elected leaders. First, the EU willingly involves itself in foreign policy matters at the remotest edges of its authority. Since that authority has not been (and for the foreseeable future will not be) constitutionally legitimated or conferred by treaty, America’s joint endeavors with the European Union may lack effectiveness and sustainability. In addition, by dealing with the EU itself in high-profile foreign policy matters, the world’s only superpower is in effect bolstering the EU’s authority. The United States is being unnecessarily drawn to one side of a distinctly European conversation about the proper role of the EU in foreign and security policy—a conversation which is far from settled—thus bringing the EU’s longstanding problems of democratic legitimacy to America’s shores. ...

EU elites appear to be in different states of recognition of these circumstances. For every leader of a member state willing to recognize that the constitution is dead, another rises up and states that the document is merely being “reflected upon.” In January, for example, the European Parliament showed its unwarranted optimism for the constitution when it refused to pass a resolution stating that the constitution was “null and void”; it was defeated by a 452-to-107 margin. But German Commissioner Gunther Verheugen, the archetype of the largely invisible but enormously influential EU elite, has revealingly diverged from his usual mantra that “European integration [is] the most successful idea in the history of Europe”, to the grudging acknowledgment that the EU is currently in a state of crisis. ...

Meanwhile, it appears that the European Commission—a body appointed by the European heads of state and approved as a slate by the European Parliament—regarded the constitution merely as a convenient transmission device for greater powers that it can and will acquire through other means. As the vice president of the European Convention’s Working Group on Legal Personality, Giuliano Amato, creepily put it, “My beloved daughter is dead, but some of her organs can be transplanted to make the [currently in effect] Nice Treaty more beautiful.”

Indeed, EU bureaucrats are striving to appropriate some of the powers they would have gained had the draft constitution been approved, especially in pan-European foreign, space and defense policy. But it is still too early to tell the degree to which the EU will be successful in arrogating power. Far more important than the procedural maneuvering of those EU bureaucrats has been America’s de facto support of one Europe. ...

The arrogation of foreign policy powers by EU elites has raised the unreasonable expectation within and outside the EU that it can reach a policy even in the absence of unanimity. Straw’s statement, contrary to EU policy but perfectly within Britain’s right under the current treaties to have its own foreign policy, neatly restates the problem for dealing with the EU as a separate diplomatic actor right now.

The requirement of unanimity leads to a serious erosion of resolve in EU diplomacy toward third parties. The EU negotiates as much with itself to form policy as it does with others. The efforts of the EU-3—Great Britain, France and Germany—to counter presumed Iranian nuclear proliferation is particularly illustrative. The three operated as a subcommittee for both EU member states and Solana. The EU-3 mediated disagreements among themselves, which were common, in favor of the least difficult stance to sell to the rest of the members. Typically, Britain and France would be inclined to take a harder line than Germany, and the three would present a proposed stance to Solana. Solana would then either consult the heads of state or estimate their wishes himself, an exercise which invariably softened the proposed stance further.

The results were disastrous. The only progress their efforts produced was the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program. One still cannot say that the EU itself has any policy toward Iranian proliferation, other than general pronouncements of its undesirability. The State Department, aware of and greatly aggrieved by the stilted, hollow negotiation process, nevertheless had little choice but to acquiesce to the EU’s pleas for more time before taking action in the UN Security Council or other diplomatic measures.

Also, as shown with Iran, the drive for political union colors the EU’s own calculations of the prospects for success. Chancellor Merkel, greeting the results of the EU, effused, “It was what made this EU-3 approach so successful. They [Britain, France and Germany] stood together and they had one uniform position.” Charles Krauthammer grimly noted that this interpretation of events “makes you want to weep.” EU elites covet the clear diplomatic role for the EU that the constitution alone would have provided for the future, but their attempts to will such a role into existence in the constitution’s absence portend calamity for any that seek to deal with the EU today.

Granted, EU policy inertia can occasionally redound to the benefit of Western security interests, such as the inability of the EU to unanimously come to an agreement to lift its existing weapons embargo against China. But such benefits only accrue by chance. And hoping for good luck is no basis for a foreign policy. ...

The one EU organ that has been validated by treaty is the European Community, which handles matters concerning the single market, including trade with foreign nations. U.S. officials can, therefore, work with European Community officials within its clearly delineated authority, such as its ability to set conditions to access to European markets. The role of the European Community as a foreign policy tool should therefore be re-emphasized in regards to Iran and Hamas. In addition, the United States should encourage small groups of interested parties to form around certain issues, but, unlike the EU-3, should not be constrained by the will of EU elites or other nations.

The United States must be wary of ascribing powers to the EU that its member states have not consented to. Until the current constitutional crisis passes and the EU’s powers over foreign policy become more clearly enunciated, the United States should limit itself to working with the strongest and most legitimate institutions the nations of Europe can offer. A balanced approach towards diplomacy with the EU will facilitate future cooperation, no matter how “Europe’s” political union is ultimately determined.

This is a typical example of the kind of duff punditry which tends to pass for commentary these days. It is almost too loaded to know where to begin.

The editorial tries to apply well-worn, overblown clichés about lack of democratic legitimacy in the EU*1 to matters of foreign policy in general*2, and to the current Iranian situation in particular. It ignores that in such matters the national governments of Europe themselves can suffer and have suffered in the recent past from a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of their citizenship, by following policies that are deemed to be both excessively hawkish and servile.

Nothing -certainly not the "creepy" Brussels "elite"- is forcing the weakened British or French governments to strive for a consensual position within the framework of the EU-3, except fear of their respective electorates. The British in particular are polishing their European credentials to signal their unwillingness to be involved in a hypothetical military action against Iran.

Your author talks about the draft of the (admittedly ill-named) constitution, yet it appears doubtful that he has read it at all. With respect to the pre-existing framework, it represents a fairly modest step in the process of definition of the EU's role on the international stage. Its provisions (Article III-300) establish unanimity in the Council*3 as the basis for decision-making in this domain, and as the only voting mode on defence matters. This leaves ample room for the pursuit of a sovereign foreign policy by any member state.

One has to wonder whether your author, upon reading Article I-8 ("the currency of the Union shall be the euro"), would have come to the conclusion that the draft constitution would have shoved the euro down the collective throats of the British...

Your author grossly overstates the long-term influence of the US in the aforementioned -indeed "distinctly European"- gradual process of definition of a common EU foreign policy. In so doing, he seems to imply that the current mode of cooperation of the current US administration with the EU-3 on the Iranian issue sets a precedent with far-reaching consequences. It is however by all appearances an ad-hoc initiative, born of the ugly consequences of the Iraqi adventure and the exceedingly limited options of the West to curb the ambitions of the Iranian regime.

Last but not least, the decision-makers in Washington should be careful what they wish for. As America's hegemonic position in the world wanes in the course of the following decades, and as it becomes clear that Europe has neither the inclination nor the long-term ability -if anything, due to demographic considerations- to set itself up as its rival, the US will be forced to recognize the unsuitability of individual European nations as the influential partners it will increasingly need.

*1 In the words of Richard Corbett, UK Labour Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and the Humber

"One favourite eurosceptic line is that the European Union has developed with barely any reference to public opinion, and in fact without democratic support. This kind of claim is usually tossed into anti- European arguments as an aside, and therefore too often goes unaddressed.

It is, however, complete rubbish. In fact, I can think of no other topic which has ever been subject to quite as many referenda as the process of building the European Union. Specifically:
• Between 1972 to 2005, no fewer than 34 national referenda have been held in EU member states on the subject of European integration - be it accession, treaty ratification, or joining the euro. Averaged out, that amounts to (more than) one referendum every single year.
• The average turnout in EU-related referenda is two-thirds; the highest turnout is 91%, and only 4 of the 34 had turnouts of less than 50%.
• Of these 34 referenda, 28 (82%) have been 'yes' votes. Of the remaining 6 'noes', two were later reversed in subsequent referenda.
If anyone can think of a political issue that's received more endorsement by plebiscite than this over as long a timescale, I'd be interested to hear about it.

And besides, there's a more general point. We in the EU are all parliamentary democracies... It is our elected parliamentarians who deliberate and decide policy on our behalf, and must account for their actions at election time... In the UK, even constitutional developments are rarely put to vote, and still this is not seen as an omission which undermines their legitimacy. And we joined the UN, the WTO, NATO, and countless other structures where we share our sovereignty without any clamour to hold a referendum.

As long as our government remains accountable to Parliament for British policy towards Europe, and as long as we continue to elect the House of Commons, the claim that the EU has poor democratic legitimacy is always going to be shaky. All the more so when we also elect MEPs to represent us directly at European level!"

It is hard to see how the draft constitution can be seen as an undemocratic encroachment, given

-its reinforcement of the powers of the directly-elected European Parliament with respect to the Councils;

-the enshrinement of the principle of subsidiarity and the role of the assorted national parliaments as watchdogs thereof (Article I-11 and Protocols n° 1 and 2);

-and the definition of the public character of the Council's deliberations and votes on legislative acts (Article I-24), to avoid the common practice by national politicians of adopting unpopular measures at the EU level to disavow them later before their constituencies.

Also, the implication that there will be no popular vote in a number of countries if and when any of these and other improvements come to the fore again is in all likelihood wrong.

*2 The kind of fundamental criticism of the EU's raison d'être which is commonly heard from Anglo-Saxon commentators is quite rare in most of the remaining member states. In those, most complains revolve around the main area of the EU's purview to date i.e. the implementation of a common market.
This is fairly boring and technical stuff, often discussed behind close doors by the representatives of the member states, while the issues that truly interest the citizenship remain firmly in national hands.

The Eurobarometer surveys have been showing lately a deterioration of support for membership and the perception of its benefits, combined on the other hand with a call for more decision-making at the EU level on social, environmental, security and foreign policy issues. This is hard to square with your author's cookie-cutter rhetoric of "appropriation" and "arrogation".

*3 with the added possibility to stop any given decision by dint of so-called "qualified abstentions".
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