It is admittedly difficult to explain to Americans why they should be excited about Ireland’s approval of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty on Friday. When told that the EU will run more smoothly under the new treaty, Americans are likely to want to know instead whether this means Europeans will do more on the global agenda. Yet, just as we ask Europeans to appreciate the incremental nature of progress on policies like energy and health care, Americans should welcome the Irish “yes” as good news. Why? It’s a step forward for the EU in assuming more responsibility in international affairs.
The Irish “yes” sets the table for finishing the institutional reforms that were the flip side to the European Union’s enlargement to ten new members in Central and Eastern Europe. The EU has been stuck in recent years, almost obsessively focused on its own internal reform after having been stung by European voters’ rejection of greater political integration. Along with the newly elected center-right government in Germany, progress on the Lisbon Treaty makes this the time to encourage Europeans to live up to their global aspirations as partners with the United States.
The improvements provided by the Lisbon Treaty, once implemented, will represent modest progress. It won’t solve the Henry Kissinger question of what telephone number to use when you want to speak with “Europe,” but it will help. You’ll still need to decide what you want to talk about: if it’s competition and antitrust policies, you should call the European Commission because they make the decisions in that area. If it’s foreign policy, you should call the European Council, where the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy resides (although you’ll still want to call the relevant national capitals as well, which retain control of their own foreign policies).
There will be a President of the European Council with a two-and-a-half-year term, replacing the current system whereby the presidency rotates every six months among the members. Horse-trading and speculation have already begun about the identity of the first President of the European Council (Tony Blair? A lesser-known European like Luxembourg’s Jean-Paul Junker?), but this is inevitable and shouldn’t distract us from the bigger picture. (I would be relieved if we would all agree to ignore Czech President Vaclav Klaus’ foot-dragging in fulfilling his obligation to sign the Lisbon Treaty already passed by the Czech Parliament. Does he not care how poorly this reflects on his country among the other members of the EU?)
Sure, the EU remains confusing to Americans (as it does, to be fair, to many Europeans) but it doesn’t merit the casual scorn that it often gets from some American observers. This is in part because Americans keep trying to see it as a “United States of Europe” and are disappointed when it doesn’t live up to our expectations. The EU is not the government of Europe, nor likely will its institutions ever mirror the nation-state, but it is an important player in its own right in many areas where we need to work together.
The EU is already the match of the United States in the economic sphere, and our economies are deeply intertwined. Progress on a world trade agreement has been languishing (even though there are those who say it’s already too late). At a minimum, American and European leaders should recommit themselves to the Transatlantic Economic Council as a forum for resolving economic and regulatory differences. On foreign policy, the EU has no combat troops to send, but many of the pressing challenges are on the post-conflict reconstruction and development side, where the EU’s experience could be valuable. On climate change, the EU has staked out a bold promise to reduce emissions by 2020, and the United States could benefit from European lessons learned in creating a carbon market.
President Obama has made clear his view that the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone. But Americans should go a step further on the public diplomacy side and reassure Europeans that a strong EU is in the American interest. Although this has been the policy of every American president in recent decades, one of the divisive legacies of the Iraq war was the suspicion that in reality America really wants to divide Europe so it can pursue its own policies unilaterally. Of course we will not agree on everything, and Americans and Europeans have deep and enduring differences over the use of force in international affairs. But our differences shouldn’t be accompanied by dismissals of our mutual interest in dealing with the problems facing us on both sides of the Atlantic.