BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union takes an important step in its quest for more global influence when its Lisbon reform treaty goes into force on Tuesday, but any hopes the bloc will become a world superpower are a distant dream.
The treaty increases the powers of the European Parliament and make EU decision-making less unwieldy. It creates an EU president and enhances the powers of its foreign policy chief, who will oversee a new diplomatic corps.
Supporters say Lisbon lays the foundations for the EU’s efforts to have influence in the new world order after the rise of emerging powers such as China in the global economic crisis.
Critics say the EU has already undermined that aim by struggling to win the backing of all 27 member states for the treaty, which took eight years to negotiate and ratify, and by choosing low-key figures as president and foreign affairs chief.
But all sides agree change will be slow. Much depends on how the EU’s new leaders define their jobs in the coming years and the willingness of member governments to put European needs above narrow national interests.
“The treaty will strengthen the EU at a time when it needs strengthening and at a time when the Europeans are increasingly perceived as has-beens on the world stage,” said Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London.
“Are the treaty provisions the answer to Europe’s fading significance in the world? Not by themselves, no. But this ends a very damaging process of ratification that was going on, and on, and on.”
Daniel Gros, an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank in Brussels, said there would be many good organisational changes under the treaty but the bloc would not carry more weight in international diplomacy overnight.
“It will not be a revolution,” he said. “In the first years, at least, the key challenge is not so much to resolve major crises but to make the machinery work and set precedents that are useful for later.”
Ratification of the treaty was a tortuous process. Its fate hung in the balance until Ireland backed it in a referendum on October 3 at the second time of asking and Czech President Vaclav Klaus abandoned efforts to block it. He signed it on November 3.
EU heads of state and government then looked divided for weeks as they struggled to name a president of the EU Council of leaders and a foreign affairs high representative.
When they finally reached a compromise on Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as president and Briton Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief on November 19, they opted for two consensus builders rather than political “superstars”.
“The EU is no superstate striding bravely into a bright new dawn,” British Conservative Chris Patten, a former EU external affairs commissioner, wrote after the two leaders were chosen.
He highlighted the significance of U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to attend events this month marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, and go the same week to Asia.
“Will Europe do enough to change his mind the next time there is a choice? As things stand, we are in danger of making Europe politically irrelevant,” he told the Irish Times.
Other analysts say the choice of two low-profile leaders who are consensus builders could be good for the EU in the long run.
The treaty is vague on the leaders’ roles, and in some areas there could be a crossover of duties. Having two leaders who are known to compromise and unlikely to compete with each other should help build unity, they say.
“High-profile appointees would have put the leaders of the big member states on their guard,” Stanley Crossick, founding chairman of the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels, wrote in a blog.
After the struggle to secure agreement on Ashton and Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was quick to name the line-up of the new EU executive last week, dividing the influential portfolios among member states.
These appointments give the holders a chance to influence policy in the areas they control, although the duty of all commissioners is to implement EU policy.
Analysts have long said the EU must put aside national rivalries if the bloc representing nearly 500 million people is to become a political force to match its economic might.
Comments attributed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the weekend, after Frenchman Michel Barnier secured a post that will allow him to oversee financial regulation, suggest the EU is still a long way from achieving this goal.
Le Monde newspaper quoted Sarkozy as saying Barnier’s appointment was a victory for France and a loss for Britain, where some financial services leaders fear he will push for stricter regulation than they want.