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The New Europe after Lisbon

The European Union faces a key turning point towards a multi-polar world.

The New Europe After Lisbon

By Michael Barrett / November 19th, 2009

As the U.S. continues to struggle in the aftermath of a brutal economic recession, becoming ever-more indebted while spending unprecedented amounts on stimulus programs and fighting two expensive wars, emerging economies like China, India and Brazil are experiencing growth and expanding investment in scientific research and renewable energy technologies.

Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, South Africa will host the 2010 World Cup, Russia the 2014 Winter Olympics and Brazil will get both (2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics). China holds an estimated $1.5 trillion in dollar reserves and is signing many free trade pacts while the U.S. relies on it to finance its ballooning debt and deficit. The G20 has replaced the G8. These all serve as reminders of the gradually changing balance of geopolitical and economic power in the world. Indeed, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of what former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine called its hyperpower dominance.

One global actor that is playing an increasingly important role in foreign affairs is the European Union (EU), whose members’ diversity has often undermined any sense of unity. But that could soon change, as Ireland and the Czech Republic recently became the last member countries to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

Could this be another hint of the likely multi-polar world to come, and what effect will Lisbon have on Europe’s structure and status on the world stage?

In Fareed Zakaria’s book The Post-American World, he states that the EU is now “the largest trade bloc on the globe” (with a collective GDP of about $18 trillion, compared with approximately $14 trillion for the U.S.). In 2006, the U.S. had two-thirds fewer Initial Public Offerings (IPO) while European stock exchanges “expanded their IPO volume by 30 percent.” Zakaria refers to this increasing growth and influence in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East as “the rise of the rest.”

Europe may be a big economic player, but what about its political influence? There is no doubt that it has played a key role on issues such as Iran, the Russian-Georgian war, climate change and the G20 response to financial crisis. But as it grows in diversity and membership, it is hampered by an outdated governing structure that has been slow to adapt to changes.

The six founding members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) that made up the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 now find themselves with 21 other countries and counting in a vast bureaucracy governed by the European Commission and the European Parliament, among other bodies. Thus reform was pushed in order for the EU to be able to have a clear and coordinated foreign policy.

In 2005, there was an attempt at passing a European Constitution that failed mainly because misinformed voters believed that Brussels would be given too much power. I was studying in Angers, France when French voters rejected the referendum (followed soon thereafter by a Dutch “no” vote) and remember the fierce debate that raged then between those wanting to protect French sovereignty from Brussels bureaucrats and those hoping to promote a new and united Europe. Although this deliberation between sovereignty and unity persists today, the EU was recently able to pass the Lisbon Treaty. Some critics call it a copy of the EU Constitution project, but proponents refer to it as “watered-down” version. So what does this entail?

According to the official site above, the Treaty aims to “reinforce democracy in the EU and its capacity to promote the interests of its citizens on a day-to-day basis” by enforcing transparency, increasing “participatory democracy” and including national parliaments in the decision-making process more often. The EU Parliament, the only institution directly elected by voters, will also get a bigger say in policy-making, and there will be more majority voting rather than unanimous voting on issues which made it very difficult in the past to come to agreements.

Perhaps the two most important details of the Lisbon Treaty, however, are the new posts it will create: the “High Representative for Foreign Affairs” (like a Foreign Minister, with his or her own staff) and a new President of the Council (“President of Europe”) on a 2.5 year mandate. The President will be chosen by the 27 member states, out of majority vote and can be re-elected once. He or she will lead EU summits, guide the work of the EU Council of Ministers and represent the EU on the world stage. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was rumored to be the front-runner for President but his support for the Iraq War counted against him. Europe is getting closer to decision time, and the rumor is that the President will be from a smaller member state.

The current front-runner for President is said to be Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy, who seems to have the approval of all the countries including Germany and France. Others include Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg), Jan-Peter Balkenende (The Netherlands), John Bruton (Ireland) and Vaira Vike-Freiberga (Latvia).

The likely candidate for High Representative is former Italian Prime Minister (1998-2000) and Foreign Minister (2006-08) Massimo D’Alema. But the Financial Times reports that he does not speak fluent English, which is “all but essential in top-level international diplomacy.” So nothing is for sure, and there could be surprises.

What does this all mean for Europe? With a more cohesive organizational structure in touch with its constituents and a bolder foreign policy lead by two key players in the High Representative and the President, the EU looks set to stay as a power player. Indeed, Europe is well aware of the possibilities of a bigger global role

Why should Americans care? As the dominating power in the world shifts from the U.S. to a more multi-polar order in the generation to come, transatlantic relations will remain an important facet of U.S. foreign policy. It is therefore in our interest to know who our future partners will be and what their geopolitical interests are.

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