Missing another EU opportunity

Missing another EU opportunity

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
18 November 2009

When Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, made clear that he was not interested in being the European Union's new "high representative" for foreign policy, the UK lost a unique opportunity to craft the EU more in its own image. Miliband's desire to devote himself to his own country's politics is understandable (and admirable, given Labour's current standing in the polls). Nonetheless those who care about both Britain and the EU might be permitted a wistful moment to imagine what might have been.

Even though English has become the language of EU business, the union's structures remain largely a product of French administrative thought, with an emphasis on hierarchy and corporatism. One reason for this is that Britain stood aloof from the original European Economic Community, from which sprung today's EU, at its inception in 1957. That "wait and see" decision has contributed hugely to the standard perception of the EU in Britain today: as something culturally alien, a foreign imposition, and certainly not a body where the UK feels comfortable exercising conspicuous leadership.

Had Britain made the unprecedented gesture of sending a serving foreign secretary to take up the newly revamped role of EU foreign policy supremo, it would have been a powerful signal that the country was ready to help lead a more outward-looking Europe. Under the terms of the EU's Lisbon treaty, the high representative position is equipped with the authority and funds that the incumbent, Javier Solana, lacked throughout his 10-year stint in office. As the first boss of a new "external action service", a sort of foreign office set up to work for the high representative, Miliband could have created a new EU bureaucracy that was less alien to the British way of thinking and a uniquely useful tool in international diplomacy.

Further, the position of high representative is a much sweeter prize than that of European Council president, a post for which the UK persists in pushing the doomed candidacy of Tony Blair. Due to its ill-defined role and absence of executive powers, the council president – created to chair the quarterly meetings of European leaders – will be more akin to a UN secretary-general for the EU, as opposed to a grandiose presidential figure bestriding the globe. The fact that the current frontrunner for this position is Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian prime minister and candidate who offends everyone the least, seems to validate this assumption.

As the EU prepares for a marathon leaders' summit on 19 November to decide finally on who will get the top jobs, it has been striking that France and Germany do not seem to have their "own" favoured candidates, as they would have done in the past. To them, the EU is a journey, not a destination: their main motivation is to build a highly integrated "Europe" with agreements like the Lisbon treaty. But they are less sure about what to do with the structure once it has been built. Unfortunately Britain – a country that prides itself on being empirical, outward-looking and globalist – was unable, or unwilling, to provide that leadership, even when tacitly invited to do so.

It is to be hoped that, for those looking back from 2057, Miliband's decision does not appear as critical a failure of imagination as that of a hundred years before.