Leaders turn their back on Giscard’s vision
Published: November 20 2009 22:37 | Last updated: November 20 2009 22:37
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was not happy on Friday. When the former French president embarked on his mission seven years ago to remodel the European Union for the 21st century, he had expected a very different result.
Mr Giscard d’Estaing launched his European Convention with grand comparisons to the work of the Founding Fathers, telling its members that their labours would be honoured by “statues of you on horseback in the villages you all come from”.
At the heart of Mr Giscard d’Estaing’s European Constitution – subsequently tweaked and rebranded as the Lisbon treaty – was the idea that Europe needed new and sharpened leadership in the form of a new president and a foreign policy chief.
He had no doubt that the president would be a towering figure on the world stage; indeed many in Brussels thought he imagined himself doing the job. But on Thursday night Europe’s leaders turned their back decisively on Mr Giscard d’Estaing’s vision.
Instead of Tony Blair’s star quality and political baggage, they chose Belgian premier Herman Van Rompuy, a shrewd and popular consensus builder, but with a large hole in his CV in the section marked “international experience”.
For their foreign policy chief – heading a new European diplomatic service – they chose Lady Ashton, a British baroness virtually unknown in her own country whose spell as EU trade commissioner has spanned only a year.
Mr Giscard d’Estaing surveyed Europe’s new “leadership team” and mourned what he saw as the “limited ambition for Europe”. He added: “The people feel it, they were expecting more.”
Michel Rocard, former French prime minister, went further: “The president of Europe must be someone whom we have seen at work for 15 or 20 years and who is known. A little newcomer, even if he is good, is going to lack impact. As to the idea of giving Europe’s diplomacy to Britain, a country that under no circumstances wants a European diplomacy, that is a joke.”
Romano Prodi, former European Commission president, said he was “shocked” at the selection of Lady Ashton. “Who is she?” he asked.
“Europe has hit the bottom,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, veteran Green politician. Simon Hix, professor of European politics at the London School of Economics said the new team made Europe look like “a super-sized Switzerland”.
What happened to the vision of Mr Giscard d’Estaing’s Founding Fathers? Much has changed since the drafting of the EU constitution began in 2002, not least the fact that the text in its various guises has been rejected by voters in France, the Netherlands and Ireland.
If the public were growing weary of the EU’s endless conveyor belt of treaty revisions so too were some national leaders.
Germany, once the driving force of European integration, has seen a postwar generation of leaders coming through who no longer feel the desire or need to disguise German national interest by channelling it through Brussels.
French enthusiasm for European integration was firmly checked by the “Non” vote to the original EU constitution in 2005, which laid bare a dawning sense that Brussels had been overrun by Anglo-Saxon liberals.
Prof Hix said: “Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are trying to re-establish this German-French alliance. They don’t want someone in Brussels challenging their authority.”
But there seems little enthusiasm in any of the EU’s national capitals for putting powerful people in the potentially powerful posts that have just been created in Brussels.
The positions of traditionally federalist countries such as Germany have moved into line with that of the Eurosceptic view of Britain’s Conservatives, who have also called for the EU president to be a low-key “chairmanic” figure.
Does this all signal a death of European ambition? Certainly the appointment of Mr Van Rompuy was greeted with polite indifference in Asia, although Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, told European diplomats the appointments were “an-other important step forward for European integration”. The Japanese government said politely it welcomed the new line-up, while the Asahi newspaper reprinted one of Mr Van Rompuy’s haiku poems.
Not everyone was downbeat, though. Andrew Duff, a British Liberal Democrat MEP and federalist, said European leaders selected low-key leaders because they wanted to take a “cautious test drive” in their new powerful vehicle.