The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Hard questions needed in Brussels

This is an interesting take from the New York Times on the recent Brussels Forum, which I attended. “[The] high-level conference was dominated by European efforts to get Washington’s attention, with promises of new, concerted action that were met with polite skepticism.”

Some of the criticisms of Europe’s performance were not new. For example, the article quotes Nicholas Burns, a former American ambassador to NATO, as saying that most European nations are spending less on defense than they promised and are avoiding the main battles in Afghanistan.

I would seriously quibble with this and I’m sure the European nations fighting in the south and east of Afghanistan would do so too. On issues like this it is important to make a distinction between the performances of individual European nations and the performance of the European Union as an entity.

As regards the latter, Burns has a point here: ‘The construction of the European Union has been a marvel, Mr. Burns said, and Europeans talk about it as a global power. “But can they develop a collective European idea of global power? They talk about it a lot, but they don’t do it.”’

I recentlygave several examples in another post which, to my mind, show that the EU has not yet earned the right to be treated as a global player outwith the realms of trade, commerce etc where it has always been strong and indeed where it found its original raison d’être. In short, not only is the EU not behaving like a global power, it does not even have a firm notion of what kind of global power it aspires to be.

One European analyst at the conference tellingly and accurately described the EU’s attitude to America and the rest of the world as “infantile”, meaning that Brussels demands attention and recognition and gets stroppy when these are not forthcoming.

The European Union (as an entity) currently finds itself at something of a crossroads. The EU is looking inward for specific reasons – ie. the euro crisis – just when there is much to be gained by doing precisely the opposite in the field of security and defence. Moreover, Europe is divided and uncertain on those very issues and that insurmountable fact will very soon see Europe marginalised on the global stage.

The problem is nobody in Brussels seems willing to admit this. Bold speeches at the Brussels Forum are all very well but the European Union has to ask itself some hard questions about the role it aspires to play and its ability to play it.

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