Unless Europe gets its act together, the world will continue to ignore it

By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 21/06/07):

It's delightfully easy to follow the development of the European Union through the American media. Delightfully easy because there is simply nothing about it. French elections and the split between Ségolène Royale and François Hollande, yes. The latest comment by Tony Blair, for sure. And, of course, plenty in the style sections about Italian food and fashion. But the EU as a political community or a global actor? Forget it. Even well informed American newspaper readers, familiar with the latest twist in Iraq and Palestine, probably have no inkling that the EU is just going into a crucial summit that will determine its ability to be the United States' most important strategic partner over the next two decades.

Partly, of course, this is a comment on the American media, but it's also the reflection of a reality, in which - for most of the world - the EU really doesn't count for much, and certainly not for as much as it thinks it does. A few months ago, I sat in a restaurant in Cairo and heard an Egyptian dissident angrily deliver a familiar message. In terms of its impact on his country's policies, he said, "Europe is nothing. Nothing!"

Come 2009, when the US gets a new president, the EU must be ready to speak in a voice that will actually be listened to, not just in Washington and Cairo but also in Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi, the old and new poles of a multipolar world that the old west will no longer be able to dominate any more. Henry Kissinger's probably apocryphal question - you say Europe, but which number should I call? - finally needs an answer. Even the most powerful European countries, Germany, Britain and France, are just not big enough to make the difference on their own. We saw that over the Iraq war and we are seeing it today in relations with Russia. On paper, the EU is the largest block of the rich and the free next to the US: its peer in everything but military power. In trade, aid and competition talks, the EU also acts that way, and is treated that way. But not in foreign policy.

This is the most important thing that the new EU treaty should deliver. Anything in the proposed institutional changes that would enable the EU, with 27 and more members, to reach decisions more coherently, implement them more effectively, and speak with a clear voice in the world, is vital. Everything else is a distraction.

Fortunately, I don't have to rely solely on the American media for my information. I can work the phones and email, to be generously leaked to by all the chancelleries of Europe. Catching up with one of these EU negotiations from California is a rather surreal experience. One is reminded how peculiar the whole thing is. In the last days before a summit, there is hectic, Machiavellian intrigue between the member states reminiscent of nothing so much as a group of students playing one of those multi-day games of Diplomacy, the board game of 19th-century European power politics. Yet today's objects of nationalist intrigue are not territory grabs by armies but arcane legal and bureaucratic adjustments. Crackling over my mobile phone come sentences like: "The Dutch will settle for more QMV on JHA and double-hatting in CFSP." (It makes sense, but please don't ask me to explain.)

My sources tell me that the biggest likely obstacles to an agreement on the outlines of a new treaty (the details will have to be negotiated at an inter-governmental conference in the second half of this year) are the Dutch, the Poles and the British. The Dutch, one of two nations to vote no to the earlier constitutional treaty in a referendum, have a series of red lines endorsed by their parliament. My hunch is that, in the wee hours of Saturday morning and with some blood on the carpet, a compromise could be reached on their demands.

Poland's conservative nationalist twins, President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are up on their high horses waving sabres about the relative voting weights given to Poland and Germany in the council of ministers, where most key decisions are taken. Poland did exceptionally well out of the last, and still currently valid, EU treaty, that of Nice. Since then, German EU diplomacy has had one specifically national objective: to change the system so that Germany has more votes to reflect the fact that it has the largest population. A so-called double majority system is now proposed, with majorities of both member states and populations required. The Kaczynski twins, locked as they are into a 19th-century way of thinking, object as much to the fact that Germany does well out of the proposed arrangement as to the fact that Poland does badly. They say their own proposal is one "to die for" and that "there is no Plan B". Will they now take over the role of Margaret Thatcher? I would never underestimate Polish stubbornness. After resisting Nazi and Soviet occupation, standing up to a little verbal browbeating in Brussels is child's play. But there may be a compromise to be found here too, perhaps with the voting weights being left for the intergovernmental conference to decide.

That leaves Britain's political twins, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who are joined at the hip for the very last time in this negotiation. Unconvinced of the practical need for many of the proposed changes, determined to avoid a referendum and terrified of coming under attack from Paul Dacre's Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch's Sun, Brown's Treasury has been producing more red lines than a red felt-tip pen does on an average working-day. No significant new powers are to be conceded. Britain must have further opt-outs, for example in the field of justice and home affairs. The charter of fundamental rights must be removed from the treaty and have no impact on British law.

Depressingly, the Foreign Office has even added its own sackful of grit, suggesting that the proposed EU foreign minister should not be called a foreign minister, not chair the council of national foreign ministers, and not have the proposed EU "external action service" to support him or her. This would totally emasculate the position - which is, as I say, probably the single most important result the treaty could deliver. The title of foreign minister is unimportant and, indeed, misleading. (Ministers are national.) But for Europe's voice to be heard in the world, it is vital that, starting in 2009, the EU has both a permanent president of the European Council (a job for which Nicolas Sarkozy has reportedly proposed Tony Blair) and this new foreign affairs supremo who might be called, for example, the secretary general, a title echoing the secretary generals of Nato and the UN. Then Kissinger's successors would at last have a number they could call.

If Britain, or Poland, or Holland, aborts this deal now, then one thing is certain: come the new beginning in 2009, the EU will still not exist in American minds. Europe won't have a voice in the world that is recognised and listened to. And I, like so many others, shall turn my attention to China or India. At least they will be going somewhere.