The European switchboard

Harry van Versendaal, Kathimerini (English edition), 01.02.2011

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A recent cartoon in The Economist showed Catherine Ashton sitting behind a desk with five telephones. The problem is many people still do not know who Ms Ashton is, what she does or what she looks like. Worse, perhaps, most people don’t give a damn. [...]

Nor has the new setup been very impressive in handling the euro crisis. Worse for the federalist technocrats in Brussels, developments like Greece’s near-default and the creation of a bailout mechanism for Europe’s spendthrift countries have shifted power to the governments in Berlin and Paris. “Expectations were too high,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels. He said some Eurocrats tried to sell the product beyond its real value. “This is obviously not a perfect treaty. However it is the treaty we have to live with for a certain period of time and we have to make the most out of it,” Emmanouilidis said.

Van Rompuy, for one, is certainly trying. The Flemish politician, a devout Catholic with a soft spot for writing haikus, may be an unknown quantity to people outside the small Benelux nation but he has an excellent record of conciliation and negotiation (Belgians refer to him as the “miracle man” for keeping the country glued together). “Tony Blair would be wrong,” Emmanouilidis said of the former British premier who was once favorite for the job. “So would anyone else that would be tempted to behave like a president of the EU.”

It is still too early to judge the EU’s new rulebook. The new equilibrium will take years to consolidate. Unlike Ashton, who seems to have been reduced to switchboard operator status, Van Rompuy is still testing the system to see how far he can go. The Greek debt crisis, where he deftly bridged the original divide between France and Germany, and Belgium’s presidency in the second half of 2010 were a wind of political Fortuna which won him considerable credit. Many critics underestimated the Belgian, Emmanouilidis said, but we should keep in mind that he started from scratch. It is important that the first occupant defines the post for the next generation of European Council presidents.

The EU has never been great at grappling with the existential question about its place in the world - particularly as its relative weight is in decline. The bloc's contradictions cause inevitable tension and deadlocks. Progress can sometimes be frustratingly slow. “But when historians look back they will see a treaty that was as important as the Maastricht treaty,” Emmanouilidis said. “It is by no means perfect. It does not give all the right answers. But this is not the end of History.”

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