Over the weekend, the leaders of the 27 members of the European Union (EU) met in Brussels and hashed out a new "reform treaty," a document that is meant to replace the constitution that failed in referendums in the Netherlands and France in 2005. In reality, this new treaty comprises most of the important parts of the constitution, rebranded and stripped down a bit to cause less nervousness to national voters, and so to be more likely to actually make it into law this time. (Just in case, however, far fewer countries are planning to have referendums than last time, with most simply putting the treaty before their individual legislatures to ratify. Voters are unpredictable on EU policy, which they often don't understand but know they don't like.)
In many ways, it was a typical EU summit. The summiteers locked themselves away until deep into the night, leaving the journalists outside waiting until five in the morning. Finally, however, a deal was done. Difficult countries like Poland managed to win the most concessions, while those keenest on reaching an agreement, like Italy, Spain and Belgium, had the fewest wishes fulfilled. The resulting document is complicated and awkward. Nonetheless, it is no small thing for 27 countries to agree to share sovereignty in the way the EU members do. Like the talking dog, sure, it may not be eloquent, but the miracle is that it happens at all.
What did the deal conclude? Many sensible reforms from 2005's constitution will go ahead. Europe will get a permanent president--really more of a chairman for big meetings--instead of the current system where national leaders rotate through the job every six months. Getting things done will be easier, too: Poland opposed changing the voting system to make the weight of each country's vote proportional to its population. (After all, said Poland's prime minister, Poland's population would be about 70 percent bigger if the Nazis hadn't killed so many Poles--an unusually vivacious start to a meeting hosted by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.) But the change will go ahead nevertheless, though not until 2014. Tony Blair, representing Britain for the last time, secured "opt-outs" from integrationist moves it dislikes: greater integration of policing matters and the daffier bits of Europe's "charter of fundamental rights," such as the fundamental right to job-counseling services. Nicolas Sarkozy, who should have "for a Frenchman" appended automatically every time someone says he his pro-American or pro-market, managed to have "undistorted competition" removed from a list of the EU's main goals.
Beyond Europe, though, possibly the most watched part of the treaty was the creation of a single representative for foreign policy and the birth of a proper diplomatic corps. Currently, Europe has both a "high representative"--Javier Solana, the point-man on Iran--and a commissioner for external affairs. Each is supported by a different bureaucracy. To make matters worse, the foreign minister of whatever country is holding Europe's six-month rotating presidency often speaks for Europe.
In the treaty, the two main jobs will be merged and a single "external action service" created. This could improve both political visibility--Solana is likely to keep his job and will not have the distraction of a rival--and operational coherence. Europe will now stride to the world stage as a powerful actor in its own right.
Or that, at least, is the idea. True, a new job has been created (though Britain managed to keep its holder from being called a "foreign minister"). But as Charles Grant from the Center for European Reform has correctly pointed out, the "high representative" for foreign policy will be just that: a representative, with no executive power. He or she will be able to pursue a foreign policy only when the 27 member governments approve its key outlines and tell him to take it from there.
This is not nothing: The members quite often do agree, for example on Iran. The majority of Europeans agree that Iran should not be allowed a nuclear bomb, but they also disagree strongly with the possibility of bombing Iran to stop it. Though Europe differs from its biggest ally, the United States, on leaving the military option on the table, the difference can be made a useful one, as America and Europe play a good-cop bad-cop routine with the Islamic Republic.
But no amount of treaty making will change a key fact: Europe is always stuck in the role of good cop. Whatever you believe about the concept of "soft power"--and I, for one, am a believer that such a thing exists, however ill defined--it always goes best with traditional hard power. This Europe sorely lacks, limiting its options to cooperation with the United States--when the two sides agree--or sternly warning rogue states that if they don't shape up, they face a serious reduction in aid, trade, and cultural exchanges.
Two countries in Europe can bring serious force to bear: Britain and the much-maligned France, which is militarily active in perhaps more parts of the world than any country but the United States. But for Europe as a whole to bring its full weight to bear remains a distant prospect. The bloc has an economy the size of America's and 150 million more people. But its armed forces remain personnel-heavy (many still staffed by conscription) and largely low-tech, a remnant of cold-war preparation for a confrontation with the Soviet Union. To project force around the world requires big, expensive kit: aircraft carriers, satellites, heavy-lift cargo planes, and the like. Europeans are unwilling to spend the money.
Europe does not have to duplicate the military capacity of the United States, of course, nor is it imaginable that it would do so--America currently spends around two and a half times what the EU countries do combined, and the gap is widening, not narrowing. But the Europeans have not even met their own stated, more modest goals. Instead, the history is one of grand promises and limited follow-through. The Treaty of Maastricht, signed in 1992, proclaimed a "common foreign and security policy." But the results were distinctly mixed: European diplomats coordinate constantly, but when hard issues like Iraq divide them, the "common" policy disappears in a puff of smoke.
1998 promised a breakthrough, when Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac promised to add a real military tool to Europe's arsenal. They called for a 60,000-strong European Rapid Reaction Force, deployable within two months and sustainable in the field for a year. Though it wouldn't be a heavy warfighting force, it could nicely complement European national capabilities (and America's) by being effective at humanitarian rescue, peacekeeping, and even the odd bit of fighting to impose and enforce a peace. But the needed troops are available only on paper, and still lack the gear they need to take the field and be effective. European leaders now hope to have this available in 2010.
It seems the most often learned, and then re-forgotten, rule of politics: It is easy to arrange boxes on an organizational chart, to create jobs and centers and ministries, combine them, or shuffle them. But this never solves a problem of insufficient political will and resources to make a policy work. At the EU level, the creation of a foreign representative and a ministry to support him at this weekend's summit is a useful step. But that representative will be limited by the set of tools available: "soft power," of real bit limited use, and military options only when the few capable countries occasionally agree to provide them. Good-cop Europe, modestly reinforced, is here to stay.
By Robert Lane Greene