The icy winds that have been blowing through Brussels and much of Europe in recent days are entirely in keeping with the mood of the moment. These are batten-down-the-hatches conditions. When the snow and ice are thick on the ground, survival is an achievement in itself. Business-as-usual is not an option: the prudent limit themselves to what has to be done and not much more.
So it is for the European Union. Not so long ago, those who had waited so long for the Lisbon treaty were feeling positive. “At last!” they said, the EU can get down to its real work. But the sense of liberation from institutional introspection was short-lived and has been replaced by other uncertainties.
The EU, for all that it is now supposedly better equipped to face the 21st century because it has the Lisbon treaty in place, is confronted by some daunting challenges.
They have come together at the beginning of a new calendar year, the end of the old European Commission and the start of Herman Van Rompuy’s mandate as president of the European Council, in what seems suspiciously like a perfect storm.
The EU is currently being assailed by a hailstorm of bad news from Greece, whose public finances are subject to frequent updates as they go from bad to worse and from worse to catastrophic. The data used to forecast the Greek public deficit seems to have been about as much use as a bicycle in a blizzard. What is fascinating about the Greek situation is that, as well as posing a threat to the eurozone (but how big a threat?), it is inflicting as yet unknowable damage on the credibility of the European monetary system. The EU is currently still in crisis management mode, trying to work out how bad things are going to get and how quickly, whether a bail-out might be needed and who might provide it. (“We have the instruments and tools to face any situation,” said Commission President José Manuel Barroso on Tuesday – bold words.) But if and when the crisis is over, how much will the reputation of the EMS have suffered?
There is certainly potential for recriminations to come from all sorts of directions. Not just about who had what suspicions about Greek data and when, but also about how different standards have been applied to different countries. It is not difficult to imagine, for instance, the Baltic states, left outside the eurozone by statistical rigour that was not applied to Greece in June 2000, feeling sore as they suffer the consequences of a fixed exchange rate strategy that was agreed with the Gnomes of Frankfurt – and without the protection afforded to Greece. So who will heal the wounds?
Take another piece of bad weather: the fall-out from the Copenhagen climate-change talks. The failure of the talks is bad enough. What was agreed at Copenhagen was not enough to secure the future of the planet. But in addition to the results (or the lack of them), the EU has to adjust to the way in which the final deal was done (or not done).
Was Copenhagen simply a one-off, with the EU sidelined by its own refusal to lower its demands? Or was it an indication of how the future will be: a world in which the US, China and India leave the EU out of the picture? How should the EU adapt its stance towards the US, having learnt that, for the US, Europe is of secondary importance? These uncomfortable questions will be chewed over for many months to come. In the immediate aftermath of Copenhagen, the temptation must be too hide under the duvet.
Those who are still capable of feeling a warm glow about the Lisbon treaty might like to kid themselves that the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is entering into a brave, new era, but recent events in Iran are a reminder that the world is unlikely to wait for the EU to get its institutional architecture into working order. By the time the European External Action Service is up and running, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan will have taken several further turns for the worse.
My sense is that the EU is more resilient than it perhaps appears in the dark days of January. What matters for the moment is that the EU is spared any more unwelcome shocks, particularly over the course of the next few weeks The new European Commission, the new Lisbon arrangements, the new president of the European Council could all do with a period of grace. The current set-up cannot hold up against the icy winds indefinitely, but it can withstand a few blasts.
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If there is a note of optimism to be sounded, it is probably about Herman Van Rompuy. He has started quietly, as is entirely in character, but it is hard to disagree with his sober assessment of economic realities, stressing the importance of economic growth. His is a reassuringly level-headed approach. Van Rompuy is resilient. He is concentrating on the long term, and in that, the EU should follow his lead.