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Negotiation rocks

The EU's greatest and most beautiful idea? Sitting down at a table for talks that are conducted with tolerance and style, answers Romanian historian Mircea Vasilescu.

Published on 31 December 2010 at 08:00

Over the years, the European Union has developed an impressive apparatus for negotiation, which has been finely tuned by the successive waves of enlargement — and especially the integration of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Identifying a common denominator that complies – or at least successfully accommodates — the political pride, historic frustrations, economic ambitions, and real weaknesses of so many countries that have battled with each other for centuries is quite a feat. And this is not just a political achievement, but more importantly, it is a victory for culture and civilisation. Europe has developed a subtle grammar of negotiation which in today’s unpredictable and agitated world should be commended. Bringing together states that are still separated by long-standing differences, and establishing conditions in which they are impelled to communicate and plan for the future is in my view one of the greatest accomplishments of the European project.

However, there is a risk that enthralled by the wonderful forum for negotiation that it has created Europe will become incapable of taking decisions. Negotiation could become an end in itself, especially if the only tangible result of talks is a decision to hold more talks. When we are told that a solution could not be found so all the parties agreed to reopen the debate in 2013, it is worth asking what exactly has been negotiated. Today, the European Union has to compete with countries like China where high-level decision making is a quick and easy process that is followed by immediate implementation. It has to hold its own against countries like India and Brazil, where democracy may be flawed, but population growth and economic development are moving ahead swiftly. At the same time, certain political scientists have pointed out that the European Union’s fondness for multi-lateralism may ultimately encourage the United States to withdraw its protective umbrella.

The European Union is not a superpower and, as it stands, it is not certain that it will become one. The recent emergence of an EU “president” and “minister of foreign affairs” has also been the result of protracted negotiations, and the people who have been appointed to fulfil these roles — Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton who both have many qualities and are absolutely respectable — have been roundly criticised for being too low-profile. Some commentators have even speculated that they were deliberately chosen for precisely this character trait so that they would not up-stage the leaders of nation states.

Now that it has reached this juncture, the European Union is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, it needs to preserve the complicated mechanism of negotiation, which has brought it a certain measure of success. Continued adherence to the principle of "cultural difference" will remain essential if it is to achieve its long-term goal of bringing together a multitude of national and local identities in a single European identity, which for the moment still remains a dream. On the other hand, if it is to become a major player in a global arena, it will need to be able to take rapid decisions and "to speak with a single voice."

How can pragmatic decisions be adopted quickly and easily? The crisis showed that this is possible. The creation of the euro has been a godsend, and the European Central Bank has done what it needs to do to defend it. Of course, some voices have raised the issue of the exit (or exclusion) of some Eurozone countries — an option that would require further discussion and negotiation. There is no denying that the current situation is a serious one, but without the euro, it would have been infinitely more serious: how many of the former national currencies would have been able to withstand the stress of the crisis?

How can Europe speak with a single voice? This is by nature a more complex problem. National political leaders, who have to win elections in their respective countries, are inevitably subject to the constraints of a double agenda. For the most part, they are not averse to the cause of European construction, but at times, and in particular in the run-up to elections, they need to be seen to give priority to the defence of national interests rather than the those of the EU. And in some cases — and this has been happening a lot recently — they are tempted to lay blame for national problems at the door of "the bureaucrats in Brussels."

Not only do we have a chorus of national governments that do not always sing from the same hymn sheet, but also — and this is currently the case — there can be more than a note of discord with the EU’s two leading soloists in the shape of President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Having been appointed in application of the Lisbon Treaty at the beginning of this year, both Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton are in the process of developing the identity of their new offices and adding content to their job descriptions. Only when this groundwork has been completed will they, or perhaps more realistically their successors, benefit from the necessary harmonised backing that will enable them to raise the visibility of EU policy in the global arena.

But perhaps this innovation will come too late. Perhaps by the time it learns to speak with a single voice, Europe will already have been sidelined by the ongoing dynamic of globalisation. Some day we may regret our inability to reach quick and binding decisions. But that is the price that has to be paid to safeguard the essential substance, elegance and beauty of the European project: the capacity to negotiate, and to harmonise different interests without compromising respect for different cultures and identities.

Perhaps the EU is always destined to remain a "soft power," because its real strength is first and foremost its focus on culture and civilisation, and how these should be expressed with atmosphere and style. This is not only a matter of cultural heritage, and the long inventory of European achievements in art, architecture, musical composition and literature, but more importantly of the ideas that have created the European project and inspired the rest of the world — in particular those that have enabled the citizens of continent that has been torn by conflict to seek a common future based on tolerance and dialogue. Europe may never be a global superpower, but when we consider the huge range of ethnic diversity in the EU, which also attracts immigrants from all over the world, it is clear that the European Union has become a metaphor for the future of globalisation.

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