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What is Europe?

By Ioan Voicu - posted Thursday, 12 June 2008

2008 is a cardinal year for Europe. The European Union (EU) is involved in a crucial political and legal debate about its future, as well as in promising negotiations with major regional organisations. However, in this important process a fundamental question remains largely open: "What is Europe?" The question is far from being new and the answers are far from being perfect and consensual.

One of the most brilliant French minds of the 20th century, Paul Valery, once asked provocatively: "Will Europe become what it is in reality - that is, a little promontory on the continent of Asia? Or will it remain what it seems - that is, the elect portion of the terrestrial globe, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body?" His cogent questions could not receive a satisfactory reply.

An adequate reply is not available even in the 479 pages of the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in Lisbon on December 13, 2007, by the representatives of the EU 27 member states. This treaty will enter into force on January 1, 2009, provided that 27 instruments of ratification have been deposited. Stephen Loosley, an Australian participant in a debate on European diplomacy, asserted that "The Treaty of Lisbon is perhaps the most important European document to be signed since the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648". History might confirm this estimation.


The treaty provides for the position of "High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy". EU delegations in third countries and at international organisations shall be placed under the authority of the high representative and shall act in close co-operation with EU member-states' diplomatic and consular missions. On that basis, the creation of a comprehensive EU diplomatic corps is being considered. It is aimed at strengthening the EU status as a global player with a clear and distinct voice in relations with its partners.

The EU is the world's biggest trader and biggest donor of assistance to developing countries. During the irreversible process of globalisation, issues such as securing energy, climate change, sustainable development and fighting terrorism demand coherent answers that only the EU as a single legal personality can provide.

Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, will assume on July 1 this year the EU presidency for six months. While speaking about Europe as a world power, Mr Sarkozy came to the conclusion that the moment has come for the 27 EU members to start addressing the question: "What is Europe?" An important element of the suggested reply indicates that Europe is a civilisation project and that Europe needs a new Renaissance in order to create the psychological, intellectual and moral climate for a rebirth of faith in the future.

A recent article by Kishore Mahbubani, an eminent diplomat and scholar from Singapore, offers a realistic message on the matter from an Asian perspective. In his opinion the image of the EU is that of a paradox: it is both a giant and a dwarf. It stands tall because it has reached one of the peaks of human civilisation and also because of its enormously successful regional co-operation. However, it stands as a political dwarf in responding to the rapidly changing geopolitical environment.

In the Singaporean author's view, Europe has forgotten the lessons of Machiavelli and is only pursuing ostensibly moral policies in Asia. The poor political visibility and performance of the Asia Europe Meeting (Asem) and the too-slow development of the EU's relations with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) are convincing evidence of the limits of European diplomacy in dealing with global partners and planetary issues.

The causes of this situation are numerous, complex and deeply rooted in universal history. We will focus only on the absence of a dynamic European diplomacy.


A new world actor

American Ambassador John Bolton criticised what he called the EU's proclivity to avoid confronting and actually resolving problems, preferring instead the endless process of diplomatic mastication. The Lisbon Treaty may lead to changing this situation, as it is meant to herald the emergence of a new world actor equipped with the diplomatic tools to give tangibility to its external policy objectives.

In implementing any foreign policy, diplomacy as a specialised profession is of essence. The EU is expected to open its own embassies under an ambitious plan for a European External Action Service (EEAS) in which over 160 EU offices around the world would become embassies. Who should control this vast diplomatic network is a capital issue under active consideration.

In accordance with unofficial data, the EEAS will number between 2,500 to 3,000 persons at its inauguration in January 2009 and is supposed to give greater force and coherence to EU external policy and by way of consequence to its diplomacy. The final shape and form of the EEAS may be established during the French Presidency in late 2008.

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First published in the Bangkok Post on June 1, 2008.

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About the Author

Dr Ioan Voicu is a Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok

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