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EU back to the future?

Gavin Hewitt | 11:20 UK time, Friday, 20 November 2009

Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Catherine Ashton, 19 Nov 09There used to be a view of Europe: that France and Germany ran the union. It was fashioned to their design.

There used to be a view that Europe's leaders preferred backroom deals to the harsher light of open debate.

There used to be a view that, despite its economic power, Europe punched below its weight on the world stage. Other nations were frustrated at having to phone numerous European capitals in a crisis. It used to be said that the world was becoming a G2 - America and China, with Europe excluded.

So began a long, divisive process to change how Europe functioned. It ended up with the Lisbon Treaty. The larger union of 27 nations would function more efficiently and Europe finally would have powerful leaders who would rub shoulders with Obama and Putin.

Wind forward to the present. The key power-brokers in the choice of Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Catherine Ashton were the French and the Germans. President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel coordinated their approach. They agreed not to oppose each other in selecting the candidates for Europe's top jobs.

They went for the Belgian Prime Minister, Van Rompuy, not because he was the best leader for the job. Germany's Angela Merkel said he offered "consensus". It is an interesting word that can be interpreted in many different ways. In Europe it often means "the person that is least objectionable". Some interpret it as "the lowest common denominator".

It should be said that Van Rompuy does not arrive empty-handed. He is an effective mediator but he is not a communicator who can sell where Europe stands. It will be interesting to see when he gives his first international interviews.

The key for the French and Germans was not to have a Blair-like figure who might overshadow them. The laws of power have not changed by the signing of a treaty.

In any system there is always some backroom horse-trading. It is not necessarily sinister. In the past few days Gordon Brown knew that Tony Blair would not make it, yet he and his ministers continued to support him publicly. It strengthened their hands in the deal-making. The French and Germans knew that if Tony Blair's name remained on the table it could split the member states. They were desperate to avoid it.

It enabled Gordon Brown to go to a meeting of the Socialist group of leaders yesterday and essentially trade in Blair for Cathy Ashton. From the British point of view it was not a bad deal. They have someone who is the Vice President of the Commission and at the heart of decision-making.

Earlier this week the British felt what support there was for Tony Blair was draining away. The final straw came on Tuesday evening, when diplomats received a Swedish paper detailing what the job of president involved. Under the Lisbon Treaty it had been left vague. There was mention of the need for a consensus-builder, a good chair of meetings. What had slipped away in the night was the role of being the voice of the EU on the world stage.

In that note the British understood the job had been redefined in a way that would not suit Tony Blair. He was called by Downing Street and by Thursday morning he knew it was over for him.

Of perhaps greater significance was the new emphasis of the job. The ambitions of the EU have been lowered. They have backed away from a powerful figure sitting at the world's top table. After being appointed Van Rompuy joked that he was anxiously waiting by his phone to be called in the event of a crisis. It was a joke because world
leaders will continue to make their first calls to Paris, Berlin and London. Part of the federalist dream has faded.

That is why some of those applauding the appointments are Eurosceptics. They can live with a relatively low-profile "chairman". It does not seem like another step towards a "superstate".

So the EU, in many ways, is back where it was. Certainly, under the new voting system it will be easier to reach decisions among the 27 member countries. But in choosing relative unknowns the EU has signalled it does not want new centres of power to challenge the nation states.


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