A dinner party that will decide the course of Europe

Tough days ahead for Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.   Photo AFP

Tough days ahead for Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.  Photo AFP

Published: 17 November 2009 15:17 | Changed: 17 November 2009 18:06

This Thursday will see the final move in the board-game revolving around the appointment of two new top EU officials. Whatever the outcome both will way heavily on European foreign policy.

By Luuk van Middelaar


A dinner annex 'appointments summit' in Brussels on Thursday is expected to deliver a decision is about who will become the new permanent president of the European Council and who will be the new high representative for foreign affairs. That is, if everything goes according to plan.

So far, Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has been unable to get the 27 EU member countries to agree. He keeps on 'consulting', as if that will somehow automatically yield a scenario likely to please all. It won't. There will come a time, say between the main course and dessert, when the Swede will have to put a proposal to his 26 colleagues in the hope that a consensus can be found.

It is a given that you can't please all the member countries at the same time; so some of those present on Thursday, who are 'candidates' themselves, may have to swallow hard. If the first Swedish proposal is not accepted, negotiations could go into the night. We will likely have to wait until Friday morning to find out who will speak for Europe in the future.

But are the EU countries even capable of coming to a common foreign policy? It is a valid question. The EU countries have often failed to respond collectively to the challenges posed by the world around them, like the war in the Middle East, migration or the credit crisis.

And yet these events do affect the EU countries collectively because of their common economic ties. The British know from experience, going back to the Falklands war with Argentina in 1982, that in a conflict with a third country it is better to have the others on board. So a lot is already being done together. To express disappointment, or relief, every time there is a quarrel between the EU countries is an exaggeration.

27 ships

One could compare the European Union to a convoy of 27 ships making its way through the geo-political waves. (I am borrowing the metaphor from E.P. Wellenstein, the Dutch WWII resistance fighter and later European official who used it in a speech at the Clingendael institute on the occasion of his 90th birthday.) Just picture them: 27 ships, each flying their own flag and that of the European Union too. The wind makes them drift apart some of the time, or gets them to sail in the same direction at other times. Anyone can tell there is a difference between the large and the small ships, and between the ships on the inside or the outside of the convoy, and the ships sometimes react differently to the same wind.

What isn't visible is what the 27 captains know very well: under the surface their ships, like the 27 EU governments, are all connected, economically and monetarily. The European convoy currently doesn't have one single captain: the 27 captains all take turns leading the convoy. That's about to change. The European convoy is about to gain a permanent president whose job it will be to preside over the meetings of the 27 captains, and a high representative who will oversee its foreign policy.

There has been much speculation about who will be the face of EU foreign policy: the new permanent president of the European Council or the high representative. Treaty competences are being studied in detail: who can do what, how many diplomats and staff will each one get? Of course a lot will depend on the choice of personalities. If the council president comes from a small country, like Latvian former president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, this will open the door for a high representative from a large country, like a former British or French foreign minister.

But there is a good chance that responsibility for EU foreign policy will come to lie largely with the council president in any case. After all, he or she will preside over the meetings of the 27 heads of government, which is where the big decisions are made about both geo-political developments and internal European policy.

Outside pressure

Where the ships are headed and how the ships are interconnected is becoming increasingly difficult to discern. This is because of a shift in the worldwide power balance. It is becoming harder and harder for the West to simply defend its own interests around the world. Pressure from the outside is increasing. Just think of the Chinese and Russian financiers who bailed out Western companies during the credit crisis.

In the same vein, it has become impossible to guarantee the success of the euro if the EU is not also talking to the Americans and the Chinese: a too strong euro has a direct impact on European exports and hence on European employment. It has become impossible to have a serious climate and energy policy without also taking into account that many EU member countries are dependent on Russian gas for their winter heating. It has become impossible to develop a migration policy without also talking to North Africa.

There are a great many areas where internal and foreign policy issues come together. So even if the permanent council president was to restrict himself to internal European policy only, he would still have an important role to play at the foreign policy level.

One of the few tasks to have been formally defined is that the council president will "represent the union at his or her level". This means that the council president will be the one to talk with US president Barack Obama or Russian president Dmitri Medvedev. It also implies that the high representative will be the one who meets with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton or Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrov. In Brussels, like in Washington, Moscow and Beijing, more and more decisions are being pushed to the very top of the decision-making process.

Consequently, even if the leaders decide on Thursday night for a 'weak' council president and a 'strong' high representative, the former may soon impose himself more than many commentators now expect. And if, above that, the Swedish presidency looses the initiative at the dinner table, it is not impossible that we will soon see a former president of Latvia shine in the name of Europe on the international stage.

Luuk van Middelaar is a political columnist for NRC Handelsblad. He recently published 'De passage naar Europa; geschiedenis van een begin' (Historische Uitgeverij)