Europe's Superpower Hopes Dim

When the EU's Lisbon Treaty finally took effect last year, the bloc's leaders hailed the start of a new era.  For the first time, the 27-nation union--representing 450 million people and a third of the world economy--could look forward to matching international clout. The pact gave Europe not just a streamlined decision-making system, but also a permanent president and a de facto foreign minister to serve as its global champions.
Yet 100 days on, Europe's voice sounds as quiet as ever on the world stage. Both the new European Council president, former Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy, and the new high representative for foreign affairs, Britain's Catherine Ashton, have confirmed their earlier reputations as lackluster performers better at quiet diplomacy than international image boosting. The talk still is of a new global order dominated by the "G2" of China and the U.S.

Certainly, there's no sign that Europe's prestige is on the rise. Last month, President Obama announced that he wouldn't attend a key EU-U.S. summit in Madrid this summer, a perceived snub in Europe's capitals. That follows the EU's sidelining at the Copenhagen conference on global warming. If Europe played a leading role in convening the gathering, what emerged was a three-way debate dominated by America, China, and a coalition of poorer nations.

Internally, too, central leadership looks weak. The Brussels hierarchy has been confused, not clarified, by the Lisbon Treaty. Europe now boasts separate presidents of the European Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament (not to mention the six-monthly rotating EU presidency). But blame for a leadership deficit belongs to member states as much as to the new figureheads. Van Rompuy and Ashton were compromise candidates selected partly because of their unthreatening obscurity rather than their merits. Whatever their fine words over Lisbon, the bloc's big hitters remain reluctant to cede any real authority to Brussels. As so often in the EU, national interests trump collective ones.

The simple truth is that the Lisbon Treaty can't re-create the EU as a superpower. Says Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank: "It is not personality that denotes power: it is money, guns, political will, and diplomatic influence. When the EU can deploy those efficiently, then other countries will sit up and listen." Meanwhile, Europe may not have the leadership it needs, but it does have the leadership it deserves.