The bulletin at fifty

Bulletin article
02 October 2006

The CER opened its office in January 1998. Soon afterwards we established the bulletin as a forum for debate on European reform – both for our staff, and for external contributors. The latter have included Urban Ahlin, Pervenche Bérès, Carl Bildt, Christoph Bertram, Rodric Braithwaite, Jacques Delors, Tim Garden, David Hannay, Chris Haskins, Pierre Hassner, François Heisbourg, Digby Jones, Richard Lambert, Charles Leadbeater, Andrew Marr, Klaus Naumann, John Monks, Kori Schake and Peter Sutherland. The 50 bulletins have covered many subjects, but four themes recur, again and again: economic reform, defence, institutions and transatlantic relations.

We have always been enthusiasts for the ‘Lisbon agenda’ of economic reform, though sometimes over-optimistic on what it could achieve. Long before the EU launched that agenda in March 2000, Ben Hall wrote in bulletin 2 (October 1998) that “Europe may be moving towards a new kind of integration, based on inter-governmental co-operation, peer-group pressure and benchmarking”. He correctly predicted that this model would extend beyond employment policy – where it already existed – to many other domains.

Not all our predictions have been spot on. In June 2004, just after the accession of eight East European states, we said that the influx of labour to Britain would be “a trickle, not a wave”. We quoted research suggesting that only 130,000 East Europeans would come over 30 years. In fact, about 600,000 came in two years. However, we were right to foresee that enlargement into Eastern Europe would bring economic benefits to the entire Union.

On defence, bulletin 3 championed the idea that the EU should run its own military missions – and that was before the St Malo summit of December 1998 unveiled Franco-British plans for an EU defence policy. Subsequently, we have called for the pooling of European military assets, pan-European defence procurement, autonomous EU military capabilities and an EU defence budget. The conservatism of politicians and defence ministries has prevented most of this from happening. Yet EU defence has made steady progress, for example with the dispatch of troops to Congo and Bosnia, and the creation of the European Defence Agency.

On EU institutions, we have fired off dozens of ideas for making them work better. In October 1999 we said the eurozone needed a ‘Mr Euroland’ to speak for it; in April 2000 we called for an end to the rotating presidency; and in October 2000 we asked for a European foreign minister. Mr Eurozone now exists, in the form of Euro Group chairman Jean-Claude Juncker. The ideas on the rotating presidency and the foreign minister featured in the constitutional treaty, but are – for now – stuck there. In August 2000 Steven Everts wrote that “the EU’s expansion to 27-plus members means that more ‘flexibility’ in institutional structures is inevitable. Leadership and innovation in new areas of policy will, increasingly, depend on smaller groups of countries rather than the full complement of EU members.” That is now happening in areas such as justice and home affairs (with the seven-country Treaty of Prüm) and foreign policy (with the ‘EU three ’ tackling Iran).

As for transatlantic relations, our response to September 11th, in bulletin 20, proved too optimistic. We predicted, correctly, a rapprochement between the US and Russia, based on their common interest in combating fundamentalist terrorism. We also foresaw that the US would focus on more dangerous parts of the world than Europe, leaving the Balkans largely to the EU. But we went on: “Even if US military actions are mainly unilateral, Bush may well see the benefits of building and holding together an extensive anti-terrorist alliance, involving many Islamic states, the Europeans, the Russians and perhaps the Chinese. The ‘new world order’ promised by the elder Bush evaporated. His son has the opportunity to shape a more solid geopolitical realignment.”

Sadly, that anti-terrorist alliance fell apart when the son shifted his focus from Afghanistan to Iraq. Inept American and European diplomacy split the West in two. Donald Rumsfeld’s division of Europe into ‘new’ (pro-American and economically liberal) and ‘old’ (anti- American and protectionist) became received wisdom. But Heather Grabbe saw that this cleavage would not last, pointing out in February 2003 that many East Europeans opposed George Bush’s foreign policy, supported the European social model and leaned to protectionism. “After enlargement, the EU will not be cleanly divided between ‘old’ and ‘new’ groups of countries. Instead, the new members will join the old ones in forming short-term alliances. The composition of these shifting alliances will depend on the issue at hand and not all of their stances will be welcome in the US.”

The next bulletin, written during the US’s triumphal invasion of Iraq, led with a piece entitled ‘The decline of American power’, which upset some readers. “The decline in American soft power over the past year has been astonishing. After September 11th, virtually the whole world was united in its sympathy and support for the US. ...Yet in the early months of 2003 American diplomacy could not persuade more than three of the 14 other members of the UN Security Council to back a resolution that would legitimise military action in Iraq.

” In his second term, Bush and senior colleagues, such as Condoleezza Rice, have made a big effort to consult allies, talk politely and repair the damage. Yet in many parts of the world American influence remains low (even though some forms of American soft power, such as its elite universities, remain appealing). This is disturbing, for a stable world order requires a strong and respected US. The most worrying geopolitical trend of the period covered by the 50 bulletins, from Europe’s point of view, is not the rise of China’s economy, the revival of Russian power, Europe’s declining demographics – or even be the increased threat of jihadist terrorism. It is American weakness.

In June 2003, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, we argued that the secret of an effective European foreign policy would be a common Franco-British stance on how to deal with the US. “Britain and France should agree to back the idea of a strong EU which is capable of acting autonomously, which normally supports the US, but which is occasionally prepared to say no.”

Let us hope that the imminent departure of Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac will allow that goal to be realised. A healthy transatlantic relationship requires not only a powerful and confident America but also a Europe that is stronger – economically, diplomatically and militarily. The bulletin will continue to promote ideas for reforming and strengthening the EU.

Copyright is held by the Centre for European Reform. You may not copy, reproduce, republish or circulate in any way the content from this publication except for your own personal and non-commercial use. Any other use requires the prior written permission of the Centre for European Reform.