Every man for himself

Published on 30 November 2012 at 18:08

The major diplomatic event of this week was the United Nations’ decision to recognise the Palestinian Territories as a non-member observer state on November 29. The vote in the UN General Assembly was first and foremost a symbolic gesture, which, in itself, will not settle the issue of the co-existence of Israel and its new official neighbour. And from the perspective of Europe, the fact that the EU was unable to speak with a single voice was also equally symbolic.

The record of the vote shows that the 27 EU states were divided into two roughly equivalent blocs, with 14 countries in favour and 12 abstentions. Among the Europeans, only the Czech Republic voted against the measure – alongside eight other countries, including Israel and the United States, in the 188-member assembly.

As Lluís Bassets pointed out in the run-up to the UN vote, the European External Action Service (EEAS) launched in 2010 has remained an empty shell. Not only do the EU-27 appear determined to ignore the Service led by the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and its mission to develop the global influence of the EU, but they also appear completely unperturbed by their incapacity to agree among themselves on a question as symbolic as the recognition of a Palestinian state.

Also telling, is the fact that European disunity has once again made itself apparent a week after a failed summit on the EU budget, marked by a defence of national interests, which undermined any attempt to define shared priorities for the next seven years.

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The fact that these events have followed each other in such close succession is not a coincidence, but reveals the spirit of the times. On Friday, in an interview with four European newspapers including the Financial Times, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared that his government wants “a debate at the level of the 27 [member states] on whether Europe is not involved in too many areas which could be done at the national level.”

The question of subsidiarity is not new, and ought to be posed to improve the functioning of the Union. But asked in such a manner in the current context, it will only add to the confusion already prompted by the British debate on the repatriation of powers to London.

The political message inherent in all of this is that we should have an à la carte Europe, even if it goes against the overall interests of the European project.

A few years ago, the ill-fated European Constitution was to be the consecration of a crucial phase of European construction. Born under unfavourable conditions, the Lisbon Treaty which replaced it was marked by compromise and renunciation, and the spirit it was supposed to sustain has since been swallowed up by the economic crisis.

In his book, De passage naar Europa [The passage to Europe], Luuk van Middelaar describes the ever-changing balance between the “external sphere” of the traditional 19th Century Concert of Nations, the “internal sphere” of community institutions, and the “intermediate sphere”, where a council of states slowly advances towards decisions which transcend their national interests but nonetheless take them into account. Until recently, the history of the EU has been one of transition from the predominance of the external sphere towards close cooperation between the two other spheres. However, this historical process now appears stalled.

Today, only the Commission persists in proposing projects that relate to integration in the long term. But it appears increasingly alone and unable to make itself heard.

Notwithstanding this deceleration in the progress of history, the EU has recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And this is not a coincidence. The Nobel Committee wants to warn against the consequences of deadlock between Europe’s 27 member states. When the decision was announced, we remarked that the EU should show itself to be worthy of the award. In answer to our request, we have now had news that six EU leaders will not attend the prize-giving ceremony on December 10.

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