This column was published in Newsweek

As Europe Dithers

2 April 2010 (from the magazine issue dated 12 April 2010)

Not since the 1930s have international politics been in such flux. Rising states such as China, India, Turkey, and Brazil, as well as a newly assertive Russia, are challenging the old democracies as never before. But rather than use its growing Union to assert itself, Europe has failed to convert the EU into a serious foreign-policy player—and looks increasingly irrelevant. Brussels recently had to cancel the annual EU-U.S. summit due for Madrid next month when President Barack Obama decided to skip the empty photo call. Obama is flying to Europe shortly, but to meet with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague. For the first time since Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941, the concept of a common Euro-Atlantic world view seems empty, even quaint.

It was not meant to be like this. The Lisbon Treaty creating a new EU constitution was ratified amid great fanfare last fall after a decade-long wrangle. The treaty is full of grand language on a common foreign policy, which was supposed to be executed by the holders of two new posts: a president of the European Council and a foreign minister (called a "high representative" in Euro-jargon). But it isn't working.

Pundits talk of a U.S.-China G2 and leave the EU on the sidelines. China ignored EU pretensions to lead on climate change at Copenhagen, and Russia ignores Brussels, seeking bilateral relations with compliant European leaders such as Silvio Berlusconi. Turkey has snubbed Europe by warmly welcoming Iran's president, and Brazil has done the same by encouraging Argentina as it reasserts its claims to the Falklands.

Part of the problem is personality—specifically those of Europe's unknown new president, Herman van Rompuy, and its still lesser-known foreign minister, Catherine Ashton. But their lack of celebrity misses the real point. It is now clear that Europe's leaders never really intended to develop a united voice on world affairs. The European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, hated the idea of having to share the global limelight. Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sees himself as a global player in his own right, in the oversize mold of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. As Europe watches Russia's new assertiveness with concern, Sarkozy has sold Moscow advanced warships.

A low-profile EU also suits Germany's Angela Merkel, whose only priority seems to be avoiding doing anything that might hurt German exports. It suits the Spanish government, which still refuses to recognize Kosovo, thus undermining any hope of a general Balkan settlement. And it suits London, where foreign policy is on hold until after the May 6 election.

National leaders are also split on the key foreign-policy questions facing Europe. They hold widely divergent views on whether to confront or accommodate Russia, to welcome or reject Turkey as a member, whether to take a hard line with Israel, and what to do in Afghanistan. While NATO gives lip service to the effort there, few EU nations have proved willing to commit troops to fight the Taliban. Indeed, that conflict has already led to the collapse of the Dutch government.

Even on a peripheral issue such as relations with Cuba, some European foreign ministers parley with Castro's apparatchiks while others boycott the Caribbean dictatorship. Europe does have innovative foreign-policy thinkers, such as Greece's George Papandreou (who, as foreign minister, transformed Greece's relations with Turkey) and Poland's Radek Sikorski (who has calmed tensions with Warsaw's neighbors). But they are locked in domestic struggles that consume all their time.

Instead of dealing with serious issues, Brussels spends its energy demanding that the EU now get three seats at G8, G20, and IMF gatherings, making it look as though it was more concerned with securing prestige than delivering actual clout. A no- or low-growth EU with a declining defense budget seems less and less relevant on the world stage.

Ashton and Rompuy are not to blame. The problem is Europe's national leaders, who have decided to put their own domestic interests before the Union's. In the meantime, the most the EU can muster is a common agricultural and trade policy. A real common foreign policy remains a distant fantasy—and it's far from clear when Europe's leaders or voters will support one.