Empire of Nothing

September 18, 2008

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Empire of Nothing

The European elite pushing for a consolidated European Union hit a huge speed bump in June, when Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, which created a more unified continental government. In August the vision of an effective, united Europe ran into another barrier, the Russian defeat of Georgia. At no time in recent history has the dream of Europe as EUROPE looked so distant.

Not that those most determined to unite the continent seem to have noticed.  An official at the European Commission admitted: “Some people are saying that Georgia—which has changed the atmosphere in Europe—could be used as a pretext for the Irish to hold a second referendum.” Indeed, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who temporarily holds the EU presidency, points to the EU’s difficulty in confronting Russia as a reason to pass the Lisbon Treaty. Had the Treaty been in force, he claims, the EU “would have had the institutions it needs to cope with international crises.” However plausible that sounds in theory, it is nonsense in substance. Europe is not disunited because it lacks a consolidated government.  Europe lacks such a government because it is not united.

The half century transformation of the Common Market—starting as the European Coal and Steel Community—into the European Union has been slow and often painful. But the process of economic cooperation has gone far. Not far enough, however, for the continent’s New Class, imbued with a pan-European philosophy, since countries retain their national identities and control over their most basic national policies. Hence the campaign for further consolidation through the Lisbon Treaty.

But as the EU has turned from a tool to open and expand markets into an ever more distant regulatory bureaucracy, popular resistance has grown to transferring more power to Brussels.  Hardly a day goes by without Europeans being reminded of the many mindless dictates from Brussels to which they are subject—the prosecution of a British grocer for using imperial weights in his business, for instance.

Thus, the masses proved to be far less enamored than the elites with the formal constitution unveiled in 2004. It was a complicated text, 474 pages filled with detailed provisions on just about everything, including a special protocol on Greenland. But the most important provisions would create an EU president and a continental foreign policy, and eliminate the requirement of unanimity for the EU to act on major issues. While the consolidation still would not be as complete as in the U.S. under the heavily (mis)interpreted and amended American Constitution—European countries would retain formal sovereignty and their own militaries, for instance—Brussels would emerge significantly strengthened.

Despite support from just about everyone and every institution that mattered, the treaty died a public death after both Dutch and French voters rejected it. The Eurocratic elite was stunned, but wasn’t about to allow its project to die. The text was adjusted slightly and rechristened as the “Lisbon Treaty,” which only required parliamentary approval. Polls showed that voters in more than half of the EU’s 27 members would reject the agreement, but no matter. They would not receive an opportunity to vote—except in Ireland. The skids were greased to slide the treaty through irrespective of popular attitudes. And then, on June 12 Irish voters had the temerity to say no.

Hand-wringing filled the corridors of power throughout the continent, but virtually no one worried about what Europe would do now, after the Treaty’s death. Rather, everyone schemed to get around the Irish vote. Ideas included allowing Ireland to opt out of disagreeable provisions to kicking Ireland out of the EU. A few analysts suggested ramming the treaty through Ireland’s Dail, the lower house of parliament, but the majority insisted that the Irish vote again. In short, democracy is fine, as long as it yields the correct outcome. Kind of the Brezhnev Doctrine applied to European politics.

Russia’s response to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia knocked the Lisbon Treaty off the front pages for a few weeks. There was shock and indignation, followed by barely concealed rage when Moscow used Europe’s Kosovo precedent to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The latter step triggered endless self-justification by leading Europeans, since the vast majority of nations have rejected Kosovo’s independence claim which, like that for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, violated international law and has not been recognized by the United Nations. At the emergency summit on September 1, the Europeans came together to decide what to do about Russia. The answer—not much, at least in terms of the Russians. But there is now renewed pressure on Ireland’s government to hold another referendum.

“This crisis has shown that Europe needs to have strong and stable institutions,” argues President Sarkozy. A number of other Treaty advocates insist that Lisbon be accepted to protect Western civilization from the Russkies. Writing in the Irish Times, Jamie Smyth contended that “Creating a more powerful EU high representative for foreign affairs, a full-time president of the European Council and an EU external action service would certainly provide more continuity to the union’s conduct of foreign affairs.”

Britain’s Guardian newspaper editorialized:  “If member states—not just Britain, but Ireland and before that France and the Netherlands in their referendums—are not prepared to sacrifice a bit of sovereignty, the EU will always struggle to find a single voice.”

Andrew Duff, chairman of the Federalist Intergroup of the European Parliament, declared:  “Faced with Europe’s dramatic security crisis, the Irish position looks increasingly preposterous.” After all, “Lisbon gives the European Union the wherewithal to do good in world affairs.” Antonio Missiroli, director of the European Policy Centre, said the new structure “would offer the type of credibility of leadership that was important in the Georgian crisis.”

The ever ambitious Sarkozy also wants a new, “more ambitious” European defense policy by year’s end, before his EU presidency ends. A rewrite of European security doctrine reportedly is underway.

So the Irish government is talking about having another vote, but probably not until late next year, after the next round of European parliamentary elections. However, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen won’t commit his government, calling it “speculation,” and said that the issue would be considered in “due course.” Foreign Affairs minister Michael Martin said, “The bottom line is that the people have spoken—they have made their decision. You just cannot brush that aside. You have to study it, analyze it and see what is possible for Ireland now.” Lucinda Creighton, spokeswoman for the opposition (but still pro-Treaty) Fine Gael party, said, “another referendum on Lisbon without any response to the concerns of the Irish people, would be rejected.”

But analysts at the British group “Open Europe” figure that “The government won’t have another referendum on the same text because they would lose by an even bigger margin,” while “[t]hey probably can’t hold the pro-treaty coalition together to just overtly push it through parliament with no referendum.” Open Europe, a skeptic of the EU consolidation project, instead predicts a more complicated mix of referendum and parliamentary action. Indeed, Cowen has suggested that perhaps some pieces of the treaty could be ratified by the Dail while other sections, with appropriate “opt-outs” from the Treaty or other concessions to Irish citizens, could be put before the voters again.

Would it work? Open Europe is doubtful: “Perhaps the biggest problem is that the Irish public has been watching the politicians scheming—in public—ever since the no vote. So they can see that the con is firmly on.”

But even if the Irish public ends up giving in, the result would not be an effective, united Europe.  The basic problem with the European emphasis on process is that it won’t work without underlying political will. But political will is lacking on both elite and mass levels.

The elite agree more on process than substance, most obviously the right of the elite to make all important decisions. After the Irish voted no, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble opined, “a few million Irish cannot decide on behalf of 495 million Europeans.” Equally outraged was Mary Frances McKenna, director of the Business Alliance for Europe:

What type of democracy is it that says one country can dictate to 26 countries? What type of democracy is it where one country demands that others respect its vote, but refuses to respect the vote of the other 26 countries? What type of democracy is it that one country tells 26 countries how to ratify its laws? It’s not a democracy at all. What it really is, is dictatorship masquerading as the voice of the dispossessed.

If Lisbon Treaty proponents were so concerned about respecting the will of the European peoples, then they should embrace the proposal for an EU-wide referendum, suggested by Daclan Ganley, who led the Treaty opposition in Ireland. But, of course, neither Schaeubel nor McKenna believes that the 495 million Europeans, or the peoples of those other 26 states, should be able to decide for themselves. In their mind democracy is preventing the people from deciding. Deciding is a job for a few thousand Eurocrats spread across national parliaments, the EU bureaucracy, large corporations, and institutional allies in academia, think tanks, and the media. The Irish result is so threatening precisely because the people have seized back control.  The disjunction between elite and mass opinion, notes the British Independent newspaper, “prompts a more troubling question. Why, across Europe, have the political classes become so disengaged from the citizens they represent?”

However, while the Eurocrats agree on the basic governing structure, they do not agree on policy. The prospect of further EU expansion, with or without Lisbon, has generated bitter debate. Ask the Europeans what they think of possible Turkish membership and visions of European unity instantly vanish.  Even under enormous U.S. pressure, seven of 27 EU members refuse to support Kosovo’s independence. And then there’s Russia.

President Sarkozy claimed, “Europe has less divisions than the U.S.” over Georgia, but he’s wrong. Virtually no one, other than Sen. John McCain and Georgia’s well-paid lobbyists, who include Sen. McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser, know anything about Georgia, let alone care about the issue. Whatever differences exist are within the policy elite, and do not undermine Washington’s ability to claim to speak on behalf of the United States. Whatever Washington decides, the United States of America will enforce.

In contrast, if the Europeans are “unified,” it is only by agreeing to do virtually nothing. Before the emergency summit, Robin Shepherd of London’s Chatham House predicted, accurately, “It will be the lowest common denominator, because countries have sharply differing attitudes to Russia.”  That’s putting it mildly. The European nations—individual, sovereign nation states—disagree violently over policy towards Moscow. In the main, Poland, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Great Britain pushed for a tougher response to Russia, though none advocated war. Italy, France, Finland, Spain, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece, Cyprus, and Germany tended towards dovish alternatives. But even these categories are imperfect: in between those who wanted a form of containment and those who emphasized renewed engagement was what the Economist termed the “larger group of fatalists” who believed that Russia held the trump cards. Supposed hawk Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk emphasized that he didn’t want his country to become isolated while Polish President Lech Kaczynski said, “We were not alone, we were acting within a group.” The German government insisted that Russia’s attempt to “separate Germany from its allies” would fail, but Germany’s governing “grand coalition” between the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats was rent by disagreement over policy towards Moscow.

In the midst of this Babel of policy opinions, Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins was insistent: “We cannot pretend to behave as if nothing had happened, as if this was just a bad dream. Leaders have to come up with something concrete.” But they didn’t. 

Although the EU’s options included threatening Russia’s membership in the G-8, application to join the World Trade Organization, and planned hosting of the 2014 Olympic Games, as well as terminating negotiations on a variety of projects, imposing economic sanctions, and tightening visa requirements, all the organization agreed to do was postpone forthcoming (and already long-delayed) European-Russian partnership talks until Moscow withdraws its troops to its pre-August 7 position, dismantling the buffer zones created in Georgian territory.

Still, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb proclaimed: “The Georgian issue has brought the EU closer together.” Maybe rhetorically. The Extraordinary European Council, as it was called, drafted four pages of tough rhetoric. The Council proclaimed itself to be “gravely concerned” by the conflict. The Council “strongly condemns” Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The group “emphasizes that all European States have the right freely to determine their foreign policy and their alliances.” The Council “notes with concern” the conflict’s impact on the region. The assembled leaders warned that “relations between the EU and Russia have reached a crossroads” and that they “expect Russia to behave in a responsible manner, honoring all its commitments.” The Council promised to “remain vigilant,” “conduct a careful in-depth examination of the situation,” and send various interlocutors to Moscow. 

Oh, yes, the EU also plans on convening an aid conference for Georgia.

Analysts at the group Open Europe rightly observed that Russia had called Europe’s bluff:  “There is no point in the EU trying to present itself as a superpower if it is going to behave like a useless jellyfish every time there is a real crisis.” Some observers attempted to put a positive spin on the summit’s outcome. Foreign Minister Stubb was pleased, “we get a united position and that means tough language politically.” Ingo Mannteufel of Deutsche Welle called it “a tough and smart Russia policy” which forced Moscow “to decide now whether Russia wants to be the European Union’s partner—or not.”

But the EU didn’t even threaten to end current cooperation. And the likelihood of Europe doing anything serious, such as boycotting Russian energy, which accounts for about 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas and a third of its oil, is inconceivable. As the Council explained,

given the interdependence between the European Union and Russia, and the global problems they are facing, there is no desirable alternative to a strong relationship, based on cooperation, trust and dialogue, respect for the rule of law and the principles recognized by the United Nations Charter and the by OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe].”

 

As the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter put it, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was left quaking in his boots—that happens when you suffer a bout of uncontrollable laughter.  No surprise, the Russian government proclaimed itself to be well-satisfied by the meeting’s outcome.

The specter of this sort of neutered diplomacy, in which the principle goal appears to be maintaining European unity rather than protecting European interests, has led to demands, especially in Great Britain, to move away from Brussels. For instance, the Daily Telegraph complained that “Britain has been strangely absent from the Russo-Georgian conflict” and because of differences among EU members “the common European position is consequently more equivocal than that which a properly independent Britain might have formulated.” The paper insisted: “we must first recover control, in practice as well as in theory” of British foreign policy.

But even if the continent’s governments could paper over their own disagreements, they lack any popular support for a serious EU foreign policy. It might be possible to continue constructing an overbearing regulatory bureaucracy and impose it on a largely quiescent population. Without a firm popular foundation it is not, however, possible to create a quasi-nation state ready and able to play an active role in the world. At least, to do anything besides trade and talk. Admittedly, the first is valuable in its own right and the second can play a useful role. President Sarkozy responded to claims that the EU was a paper tiger by taking credit for the Russia-Georgia ceasefire and Moscow’s partial troop withdrawal:  It “is the only body which can solve the situation and is able to help Georgia.”

But the limits of this approach are obvious. The EU will be able to “solve the situation” only if the Georgia and Russia are willing to solve it. The EU lacks the foreign and military policy tools to compel anyone anywhere to do anything, one reason people like Sarkozy are pushing consolidation through Lisbon. However, as the group Open Europe points out, “The Lisbon Treaty allows majority voting on foreign policy proposals from the Foreign Minister.” Would the emergency summit have turned out any differently had this been the procedure? There was no majority for tough action, ready to override the dissenters to ensure effective cooperation.

Nor would approval of the Lisbon Treaty guarantee development of a serious military capability, whether through member states or the EU. Indeed, the EU is less likely to develop a serious military than formulate a serious foreign policy. The Europeans simply aren’t interested in devoting meaningful resources to defense. In the Daily Telegraph, Malcolm Rifkind points out the obvious: “The truth is that Europe remains terribly weak militarily. Only Britain and France are significant military powers and they are both overstretched, with inadequate defense budgets.”  The group Open Europe is even blunter: “The dangerous thing about EU defense is its illusory nature—the EU speaks loudly, but carries no big stick, which is always risky.

Indeed, last week Russia announced that it was providing four helicopters and up to 200 military personnel to assist the EU’s peacekeeping mission in Chad. It seems the Europeans, whose continent has a larger combined economy and population than those of the U.S., let alone of Russia, have been unable to come up with the necessary 16 to 20 helicopters for the EU peacekeepers. Unfortunately, Moscow is unlikely to provide military assistance to the Europeans in any fight with Russia.

Finally and more fundamental, even with Lisbon the European “state” would still lack the sense of national identity and popular willingness to stand behind—and, if necessary, die for—EU policy. America’s greatest strength is not a truly national government. It is a people who believe in the nation, the union of individual states, and who will support the national government in making policy. That Europe does not have, and it would not be magically created by the Lisbon Treaty. Andrew Duff dismissed Irish concerns over maintaining their traditional position of neutrality: “Viewed from the perspective of Gori or Tskhinvali, Irish misgivings about neutrality rather pale into insignificance.” But from the perspective of Dublin the concerns actually are magnified by the Georgian crisis. Do the Irish people want to get dragged into a war with nuclear-armed Russia because a distant and largely unaccountable elite in Brussels, which has demonstrated its utter disdain for what the Irish people think, decides that war is necessary? Maybe their perspective isn’t so stupid after all.

Some Americans believe a more powerful EU would provide a more effective partner for the U.S. government. Perhaps, though a consolidated Europe implementing Brussels values might just as well oppose American initiatives. But the theory doesn’t matter. As Robin Niblett of Chatham House observes, “However large the EU might be collectively in terms of population and market size, neither it nor its member states are best organized or designed to play an influential role in the world.” As long as a unitary Europe lacks political will and military muscle, the Lisbon Treaty represents process rather than substance. As such, it would do little to enhance the EU’s influence in the world. Until Europeans are willing to pay the inevitable costs of global leadership, Europe will remain a relative international nonentity.
   
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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