Boring EU Institutions Post

The collectif antilibérale makes the excellent point that there is no problem with the appointments to the new jobs created by the Lisbon treaty. Two things will control their in-trays, after all Рthe first is the job of getting a major new institution, the EU external action service, operating and building up its credibility and budget-attracting power, and the second is the eternal one of seeking consensus between the major powers, institutions, and interest groups in a diverse confederation with a small central government.

If the EU has an effective diplomatic service and at least a rough consensus on policy, it can’t help but be listened to – it’s too important for this not to be the case. But if the member states, the institutions, and the interests that underly them don’t have a minimum degree of consensus, or the administrative machine doesn’t work, it won’t be – and it won’t matter who gets the job. And, of course, a major reason for the top level changes in the Lisbon treaty is to make it easier to achieve political consensus within the Union.

The most common way in which individuals influence history is through incompetence. We had to listen to George Bush as much as we have to listen to Barack Obama; the realities of US power explain that. By contrast, it’s very rare that individual brilliance can win anything against the tidal forces of strategy. It does seem, though, that anyone can change things for the worse by their bungling; you can argue that the Bush presidency demonstrates that this is true, despite everything the instititutions and the power of the US could do, or that it demonstrates that the institutions were strong enough to survive misgovernment that would have finished a lesser state.

So, in principle, we shouldn’t worry about the jobs except to the extent that some people shouldn’t be let anywhere near them.

And there’s a positive side. Hermann van Rompuy’s last job was as prime minister of Belgium, or to put it another way, he has made a life of doing nothing else but seeking consensus in a diverse confederation with a weak central government. Catherine Ashton’s chief achievement in government was setting up and launching Sure Start, a new, large, and complex institution that both created new structures and integrated bits of older ones – however, as this was an integrated social service for the children of the poor, this doesn’t count as institution-building. It’s women’s work.

Meanwhile, it’s been suggested that this is a policy of weakening European institutions in order to strengthen the intergovernmental side of the union. But there is nothing intrinsically beneficial about putting more stuff into the Commission. In fact, there’s been a very significant expansion in European integration that happens intergovernmentally, but for some reason this again does not count. The “community method” isn’t a religion, or rather, for some people it is. But if you must think in these terms, I reckon there is a case that we’ve had quite a bit of the famous “spillover” – in fact, working together through the core institutions has created a culture of institutional cooperation that has helped to create more cooperation.

Perhaps more could have gone through the Commission, but there has to be a better explanation as to why it should than “Monnet would have liked it”.

Meanwhile, I’d be delighted if we could start thinking about the EU without using the supranational/intergovernmental divide at all. Over time – as the original integration theories suggested – the distinction has progressively lost its explanatory power and its specificity (which one is the Eurogroup in? is Catherine Ashton obliged to divide her office into two halves?), and it may prevent us from thinking about it in other ways. After all, nobody would suggest that studying political institutions purely in the terms they themselves provide is a rigorous approach anywhere else.

(There’s a good ticktock on the appointments from Jean Quatremer, which makes clear that it was indeed Angela Merkel who selected out Blair.)

4 thoughts on “Boring EU Institutions Post

  1. It’s true that from a technical point of view the nominations are not destructive, although one might still have doubts over Ashton’s ability to build up the External Action Service while handling day-to-day foreign policy- but she has the credit to show this, her abilities.

    My complaint don’t look at this technical dimension but more about the citizen-oriented and future-oriented dimension of political leaders.

    Non of the two is a personality that are in any way (politically) attractive to the public, they are not the ones that many citizens would like to listen to to let them explain the EU and EU policies.

    And both have not shown any kind of positive vision, so they raise doubts about the question whether they will be able to bring the EU forward. Yes, it is important to have consensus on many issues, but consensus on the lowest common denominator with the only success of saving faces can mean that leaders agree on policies that are wrong for the future of the Union. Little more charismatic leaders might have been more able to push for more relevant consensus – but we will never know, at least not until we will get new personalities in these jobs or unless the two prove us critics wrong.

  2. Julien may be right, but would a “charismatic” holder of the High Rep’s post want to push her/his view onto EU member states, rather than seek consensus? We citizens do not want someone who is good at explaining to us as High Rep. We want someone who is effective.

    And there I too have my reservations. “Low-profile” seems to be the preferred description of those able to comment on her work in the UK and the EU to date.

    However, Alex raises the most serious problem. Will the member nation heads of government be willing (able?) to submit to the idea of someone taking precedence over them in terms of representing the EU? Spain (next revolving EU ‘presidency’) has, apparently, already laid down some interesting (?) warnings: their Foreign Minister expects to be at the side of Baroness Ashton at all international events where EU presence is expected.

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