Van Rompuy’s Voicemail

Sometimes we Europeans are really good at not liking ourselves. Full of self-critical enthusiasm, we have, for decades, been obsessed with the snide remark by Henry Kissinger that Europe has no single telephone number. Well, under the rules of the Lisbon Treaty a few new broadband lines have now been installed for Barack Obama or Hu Jintao to use around-the-clock, 24/7…but some would prefer to stick with self-deprecation.

For example, Alexander Stubb, the Finnish foreign minister. According to Roger Cohen of The New York Times, at a recent NATO event Stubb joked that President Obama recently tried to call the new President of the European Council, but got his voicemail: “Good Evening, you’ve reached the European Union, Herman Van Rompuy speaking. We are closed for tonight. Please select from the following options. Press one for the French view, two for the German view, three for the British view, four for the Polish view, five for the Italian view, six for the Romanian view….”

I am sure Stubb’s tale earned him a round of hearty laughter from the Americans in the audience. It is true that European unity does not automatically follow from filling a few new leadership posts. However, isn’t this self-deprecating humor also an echo of the assessment heard now and again in Brussels, and quite often in Washington, that Europe can do what it wants to because it won’t be able to make itself a global player anyway?

For some time now the view of Europe from the US has been rather skeptical. I visited Washington with the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the United States shortly after the Parliament’s rejection of the SWIFT agreement. At the National Security Council, the Department of State, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Homeland Security, we encountered a mix of perplexed questions and mild outrage. What is going on in Brussels and Strasbourg? Will it continue? Occasionally it was asked if Europe was abandoning the US. For a few of our interlocutors the decision against SWIFT was clear proof of Europe’s inability to follow enlightened American leadership. Others assumed the US was the victim of a Laocoönian entanglement among the European institutions.

One perspective that did not find much resonance in Washington was that the SWIFT decision, which found a cross-party majority in a self-confident and newly empowered European Parliament, reflected something positive: the development of a political will that stretches above and beyond – and can directly challenge – the traditional horse trading in the European Council. Most preferred, still, was the idea that the European Union presently (and perpetually) finds itself in a transitional phase as it learns how to find its footing, this time under the Lisbon Treaty. And, yes, please, when you Europeans have finally found yourselves, could you please come forward with a few concrete suggestions? Then we can talk.

I would not interpret American impatience with Europe only as criticism, but rather as a call for urgent help. We have to understand that the US, despite its reaffirmations of all the common values which the West shares, is no longer predisposed for transatlantic nostalgia. Nobody personifies this better than Barack Obama, the first pacific President of the United States, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He engages Europe with a cool pragmatism. Could one have imagined George W. Bush, “the bad guy”, simply cancelling his participation at a US-EU summit, as Obama has already done? Bush II was the president of an overextended western superpower known to snub its allies and offend European sensibilities while trying to defend its self-declared right to act like a hegemony. Obama, on the other hand, is the president of a country beginning to reorient itself towards a multi-polar world in which Asia is becoming a global power center. The US of the past was dominant because it was an assertive Atlantic power; the US of the future will be globally influential to the extent that it is successful as a pacific power. This realignment fundamentally questions the concept of the West. Case in point: Where was the West in Copenhagen when it was time to make a deal? Partly at the negotiating table, represented by Obama, and in part at the kiddies table, where Barroso, Merkel, Sarzoky & Co. were seated.

The US’s call to Europe is this: We need you to help us solve global problems. Therein lie both opportunity and risk for Europe. The risk is becoming a superfluous accessory to a hegemony that is looking elsewhere. The opportunity would be to develop without presumption its own global outlook, one which would not automatically be viewed through transatlantic lenses. In the latter case Europe would then be for the US, and for all others, a very relevant partner.

The above article was written by Reinhard Bütikofer for EP Today and published in its Vol. 6 No. 3 edition on March 28, 2010.

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