November 23, 2009
The appointments of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton to the new top jobs created by the Treaty of Lisbon have been received with general disappointment, even scorn. Political commentators all around the continent have concluded that a bunch of mediocre Heads of Government have decided on a couple of politicians even greyer than themselves just to make sure that they will not shine with their own light. It is true that, as George Parker put it at the FT, the European leaders wanted to assert the supremacy of the nation state: the new president and foreign policy chief would be the servants, not the masters, of national capitals. The irony is that this would happen precisely when the common institutions have been strengthened thanks to the new Treaty. So, at the end of the day, national governments that were ready in the past to choose strong personalities like Jacques Delors or Javier Solana for the top Europeans jobs, prefer now to appoint lower profile people for fear of their offices becoming much too powerful.
But to be fair, our leaders are not out of tune with what their peoples want. And the fact is that there is no appetite in Europe for world power and what it takes to get it. We are actually quite comfortable with the reality –if not with the notion- of a Europe Great Switzerland, wealthy, peaceful and weary of foreign entanglements. If that is the case, we should adapt our objectives accordingly: downgrading our ambitions and using our scarce energies to navigate our decline safely for as long as possible. Our first goal should be to preserve and adapt the best of our heritage to draw from it the wisdom we need to operate in an international environment in which Europe’s influence will be slowly but constantly eroding over the next decades.
In this scenario, Mr Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton look like a much better choice than it was thought at first. Catherine Ashton is both a socialist and a Baroness and that is in itself a remarkable achievement of the political culture of which she comes from. She is blamed for not being an elected politician, but the House of Lords plays an important role in the checks and balance mechanisms of the British political system. The same one, let us be reminded, which has managed to preserve and promote freedom for longer in Europe. As for Herman Van Rompuy, he is a shy and thoughtful man who brought calm to Belgium after its worst political crisis in 180 years. He enjoys writing Haiku poems, a literary form that shares with other things Japanese the melancholic feeling in the face of fleeting beauty, in which resignation can give way to a small celebration of life. His attitude is therefore on the antithesis of his predecessor Mr. Verhofstat, the professional optimist full of grand if somehow trivial ideas on the future of Europe.
The new President of the Council is also a practising Catholic who enjoys retiring from time to time to the Benedictine abbey of Affligem. And medieval abbeys can be a pertinent metaphor of the Europe we should aim for: not the one who wrote the most brilliant epic chapters of our History but rather the one devoted to the quiet and fruitful task of cultivating the best values of our tradition, whether christian, liberal or socialist, and bringing out of them the sort of inspiration which would be relevant for our time.
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