It is one of the most interesting paradoxes of our world. The European Union has a population of almost half a billion inhabitants, spanned across more than two dozens of distinct political constituencies, and it boasts the largest economy and consumption market in the world. Yet it is entirely devoid of any true state-like sovereignty.
Don’t mistake me, there is no question that the European Union has built a sophisticated legal apparatus and arcane decision making procedures that are deeply enthrusted in its founding treaties. Yet, in practice, the European institutions lack almost any fiscal firepower, have no military capacity and no law enforcement forces. The European Commission despite its self-infatuated mantra is only the advisory body and administrative execution arm of the European Council on sensitive matters. It has the monopoly of legislation and of initiative only over a few restricted subjects such as sanitary and hygienic regulations in the consumer goods and services markets, and trade treaty negotiations with third parties. Even in the latter case, it has to secure a mandate by negotiating firmly with the member states, as has been recently illustrated by the clash of the European Commission with France, over the scope of the transatlantic free trade agreement with the United States.
Despite all the rhetoric to prove the contrary, there is to this date no common “hard balls” European energy policy, as every member state plays dirty chicken games with its favored energy suppliers to prioritize its interests over those of its neighbors, thereof giving leverage and excessive influence in European affairs to energy behemoths and geopolitical powerhouses such as Russia. And the handling of the sovereign debt crisis itself over the last few years has proved how vulnerable to external chocks the economic and monetary order built over the last fifteen to twenty years could be, and how dependent the European countries were from international financial bodies such as the IMF. Indeed, before the sovereign crisis erupted in Greece in 2010, it was unthinkable and highly unorthodox to think that the IMF would one day be forced to intervene in order to rescue countries deemed to be part of the advanced world. And there is no Soros to blame this time around for the shortcomings of the European failed integration process.
Europe, the power that “would be,” will continue to bite the bullet of economic uncertainty and political fragmentation as long as it keeps functioning on false premises, namely on the assumption that the economy drives politics, whereas it should be all the other way around. No Barroso, no Ashton, and all the more no Van Rompuy can by themselves drive the Western edge of the Eurasian continent out of its protracted sleep, for these lackluster characters are only the by-products of a mediocre era, and of a ‘flaw by design not by accident’ problem.
The most depressing thought that comes to mind is that all the more Europeans will consider with apathy, morgue and fatality their condition of an enduringly nonexistent power, all the less there will be any enthusiasm for addressing the root causes of the problem, and for engaging in the kind of constitutional and fiscal big bang – a Philadelphia-like moment – that would be needed to rejuvenate this ‘ill man of globalization’.
Reflecting on the uselessness of political philosophy, the nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, viewed by many as the founding father of modernity – coined the famous sentence : “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at dark”. Unfortunately the dark times are already here for Europe but Minerva’s owl is still as proverbially missing as the phone number that former US State secretary Henry Kissinger desperately tried to find when he wanted to call Europe some forty years ago !