Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, European president and diplomatic chief respectively, have one thing in common: neither the Belgian prime minister nor the European trade commissioner was exactly a household name in Europe, let alone in the world at large, before their recent promotions. So now two total unknowns have become the face of the Union. A number of commentators say this choice goes to show the Union does not want to be a global power. They get the impression Europe is weary of History and basically longing to escape from it. Europe wants to be a prosperous, stable, democratic continent, but turned in upon itself, taking little interest in – and no responsibility for – the rest of the world. But can Europe afford such a stance? Can it repudiate the ambitions its history and geography lay at its door? It is indeed impossible for Europe to ignore the imperative to actively influence the world and, in so doing, safeguard its own interests.

Admittedly, however, other pundits have put a more sanguine construction on the appointment of this duo. Given its current situation, Wolfgang Münchau writes in the Financial Times, perhaps the EU should start by putting its own house in order and seeking consensus on key issues. It has always proven incapable of hammering out a joint position, whether it be on what tack to take on Russia, energy issues, even its relations to the US, let alone reaching agreement on its policy toward China or the Middle East. From this perspective, it is wiser to pick leaders with a knack for mediation rather than a sense of leadership. By the same rationale, opting for consensus-makers will ultimately prove more productive than banking on strong personalities who would be unable to bridge the differences between the 27 member countries. The Financial Times columnist rightly remarks that, fortunately, we are no longer confronted with the prospect of another decade of infighting over the EU’s internal organisation. With the Lisbon Treaty’s entry into force, the EU can and must take on the main problems and challenges beyond its frontiers: energy, international relations, environmental problems, spreading democracy in the world.

Would an external threat rally Europe?

The EU also faces critical challenges on its doorstep, where its neighbours are aspiring to rapid accession: namely the ex-Yugoslav republics in the Balkans and Turkey. The other sizeable quandary comprises the countries between the EU and Russia that are in the Eastern Partnership initiated by Poland and Sweden. What can be done to bring them closer to the EU so as to weigh in on their international orientation and internal organisation? The challenges are manifold and will demand a great deal of European energy and goodwill. Can we generate such a will without strong leaders to personify it and make sure it is put to good use? I would not rule out that scenario in the long term, but its implementation would require considerable optimism. Now that Lisbon has become law, the EU is apt to prove more effective. It has a president designate and a head of foreign affairs, for starters. What is more, the range of issues amenable to qualified majority voting has been broadened considerably, thus curbing the veto power of isolated states and minority coalitions.

Hence, there is something of a contradiction between the formal possibilities created by the Treaty and the people picked to run the Union, a contradiction that paves the way for the Union to evolve along either of the lines described above. What could induce Europe to buck up its aspirations and think long and hard about its role in the world? The crisis, during which it took concerted – if somewhat inadequate – action was a test. Yet it is hard to believe the EU can muster its strength in the absence of an external factor to drive home the need for action.