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Will a Stronger Europe Emerge from Unification Moves?

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Europe Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 5, 2009

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The Irish public's approval of the Lisbon Treaty marks one of the final steps in a process that could see a strengthening of European Union foreign policy institutions. The United States would benefit from having a stronger European partner, says CFR's Charles A. Kupchan, but any hopes are tempered because of the parallel trends in Europe toward strengthening the nation state. "There are two contradictory forces at play," says Kupchan. "One is the further aggregation of the collective will and capacities of individual states through the Lisbon Treaty, but that is running up against a simultaneous re-nationalization of political life across the EU." He says "Americans looking for a stronger Europe should be hopeful but guarded."

Ireland had a referendum on Friday in which its people approved the Lisbon Treaty, which is a successor to the European Union draft constitution. What is the significance of the Irish vote?

The draft constitution was an effort to streamline the European Union [EU] to make it more effective, to give it more efficient decision making, and to provide greater collective leadership so that Europe could act more of a single entity on the global stage. When that constitution failed to pass muster in France and the Netherlands, it was decided to take out the most important parts of the constitution and repackage it in a much shorter, more straightforward document that came to be called the Lisbon Treaty. Because the Lisbon treaty was much less ambitious than the so-called constitution, it would not require a referendum in each of the member states;  it would only require parliamentary ratification. The Irish did have to take the treaty to a referendum because of their constitution and that's why the Irish had to vote twice, the first time in 2008 when they rejected it and now, finally approving it by fairly wide margins.

What are the critical changes in Europe as a result?

The most important changes in the institutional structure of Europe that will be forthcoming if Lisbon is signed by the Poles and the Czechs, the two remaining hold outs, are that you'll see a change in decision-making roles which gives somewhat more power to the larger states and somewhat less power to the smaller states. There are also changes that allow the president of the EU to serve for two, back to back, two-and-a-half year terms, in other words, up to five years. Right now the presidency rotates every six months. In addition,  there would be created a "High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy," in effect a foreign minister for the European Union, and that foreign minister will have its own diplomatic service rather than rely upon the diplomatic support of each member state. The idea is that these efforts to centralize decision making and to give leaders more continuity will enable the EU to aggregate its political and geopolitical will better than it has in the past.

[I]t really does remain to be seen whether the changes that Lisbon brings are meaningful or whether they end up proving rather hollow because of the re-nationalization of power in Europe.

There's a quotation attributed to Henry Kissinger saying, "If I want to call Europe, what's the phone number?" Now supposedly there will be two phone numbers, the presidency and the foreign minister, but what will that do to countries like Britain and France and Germany that are major players on the world scene. How are they going to coexist?

Well, the EU will be a complicated hybrid institution as it is already. And there will effectively be a single phone number or perhaps two phone numbers for the EU, the president and the chief of foreign policy, but in dealing with Europe, the United States will still have to simultaneously negotiate with the governments of each member state. And perhaps the six million dollar question is will these institutional changes that take place as the result of Lisbon over time move the EU to an entity that does get more and more centralized? In other words, might this moment be somewhat similar to the 1890s in the United States when America's political institutions became more centralized; power shifted from the states to the central government and from Congress to the presidency and those changes were very important to America adopting a more muscular foreign policy. You could make a similar argument about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his restoration of Russia's institutions when he was president. That was key to his more assertive foreign policy.

The situation in Europe is complicated. There are two contradictory forces at play. One is the further aggregation of the collective will and capacities of individual states through the Lisbon Treaty, but that is running up against a simultaneous re-nationalization of political life across the EU. For example, the recent German election [in which Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats were elected to power with the Free Democrats] was almost exclusively about Germany. And there is much less talk about European integration and much less animation about the European project than there was previously. And so it really does remain to be seen whether the changes that Lisbon brings are meaningful or whether they end up proving rather hollow because of the re-nationalization of power in Europe and the growing strength of the nation-states vis-à-vis the Union.

Where does NATO stand in all this? Until now, the United States has been dealing largely with NATO on major foreign policy issues like in Afghanistan. If you're going to have a European president and European foreign minister, which becomes superfluous?

One of the reasons Lisbon could potentially matter a great deal to the United States is that the United States today desperately needs a capable partner in the world. The United States is in difficulty in Iraq and in Afghanistan; it is facing an escalating confrontation with Iran; it is still struggling through a financial crisis; it is facing the challenge of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the list goes on and on. And the best place for the United States to get help to face all of these tasks is in Europe. But, unless Europe does aggregate its resources, it won't be the partner that the United States needs. And so I think the stakes are quite considerable here.

It's not that people worry that Europe is going to unravel, rather it's that Europe will fall short of becoming the force on the global stage that many people believe would be good for the world and particularly good for the United States. And although NATO will remain at least for now the main security institution of the West, there is a view that's it's time for the European pillar of NATO to stand up. And that would mean individual member states, but also the EU collectively, preparing itself to share more geopolitical burden with the United States and a president that serves five years and a foreign policy chief that has a broad portfolio is an important step in the right direction but it still remains to be seen whether the key players, the British, the Germans, the French, the Italian, are able to begin to move, particularly on security policy and defense procurement, toward a more collective, integrated stance.

It's been said that the likely first president would be Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. Do you think that he's acceptable to most Europeans?

Tony Blair is one of the most qualified Europeans for the post. There's no doubt that he would be a controversial figure because of his role in the Iraq war and his close partnership with George W. Bush-neither the war nor the Bush administration was particularly popular in Europe. At the same time Blair would be seen as a very strong candidate because of his experience and because he is someone who is both a committed European and a committed Atlantist  and would likely try to construct a stronger Europe that is closely allied with the United States.

The Conservative Party in England is having its annual meetings right now, and there's been a lot of speculation in the British press that David Cameron, the Tory leader, might try to sabotage this Lisbon treaty by saying he wants a referendum if the Tories get elected to office before the treaty  goes into effect. Do you think this is possible?

[U]nless Europe does aggregate its resources, it won't be the partner that the United States needs. And so I think the stakes are quite considerable here.

The position of the Tories to which you're referring is part of the undercurrent of re-nationalization that we were speaking about because the British conservatives have always been Euro-skeptic. They prefer a Europe of nation states and a Europe that is primarily about free trade with politics left to the individual members. And, in general, center-right parties across Europe are more Euro-skeptical than the center-left. And so in Germany where Merkel and the Free Democrats just won the last elections, the German government is going to move towards a somewhat more Euro-skeptical direction. In Italy, the left is completely fragmented and ineffective. In France, the left is equally weak and as a result of the dominance of the center right in Europe, there is a concern that despite the Lisbon treaty, the arrow is pointed towards the nation states, not towards the union. This threat that Cameron, the Tory leader, has verbalized -- potentially calling a referendum in the UK on Lisbon -- is very unlikely to happen if only because of the timing. If all goes according to plan, we may well have Lisbon in effect by the end of 2009.

So what's left? The Czech president Vaclav Klaus and the Polish president, Lech Kaczyński have to sign it?

The Polish situation is pretty much pro-forma. There is some hesitancy but little expectation of trouble. I think the big unknown is Mr. Klaus, who is known to be a strong Euro-skeptic, but the cost to the Czechs and the Poles of saying no would be too high. So what that means is that even if the Tories win, they are likely to do so after Lisbon has taken effect.

For the United States is it a plus or a minus?

Over the last sixty years, there has always been a certain schizophrenia in American policy. From the Marshall Plan onwards, the United States has invested in a strong, integrated and stable Europe but didn't want Europe to get too strong lest it eclipse American influence. That schizophrenia is now gone. It disappeared during the second Bush term. And that was really a reaction to the degree to which the United States found itself isolated and alone in the world after the Iraq war and the fallout over American unilateralism. So I hear very few if any voices in Washington that are still skeptical of the need for a strong Europe. And in that sense, the American political class sees Lisbon as a big step forward in principle and the key question is will these institutional changes actually result in a concrete evolution of Europe as a better partner. And there I have indicated I am hopeful but at this point, not terribly optimistic, because of this undercurrent of re-nationalization that has stemmed from the impact of globalization on the welfare state, Muslim immigration that has not gone well, and the Afghan war, which has empowered many Europeans on the idea of being a more global player. So I would say right now, the Americans looking for a stronger Europe should be hopeful but guarded.

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