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Fallout from Copenhagen: has the EU lost its global relevance?

By Jean-Pierre Lehmann - posted Monday, 11 January 2010

The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference marked the end of a decade of numerous global conferences and summits not with a bang but with a fairly pathetic whimper. What they underlined were the profound transformations in the global balance of power that had taken place in a decade. None perhaps was more visible than the decline of the European Union, a major “victim” of Copenhagen.

Prior to Europe’s uncontestable global dominance being shattered by World War I and the subsequent rise of the US, in 1900 to 1910 the region had reached its apogee. In spite of the introduction of the Euro and the expansion of the EU’s membership to include countries formerly under the Soviet imperialist yoke and its still considerable economic weight - 22 per cent of world GDP - 2000 to 2010 would appear to be Europe’s swan song as a pre-eminent global power, with Copenhagen as the not-so-grand finale.

During this period the EU failed to adjust to the global transformation that has witnessed the remarkable rise of a number of new emerging economic and geopolitical powers, as it has also failed to refurbish the transatlantic relationship, which for the entire second half of the 20th century was the bedrock of global governance and of Europe’s role and position in the world. The demise of the transatlantic alliance will be seen as one of the legacies of this decade.


Europe’s major failure has been its incapacity to get its act together. Throughout the decade, it acted not as a cohesive grouping but a collection of states running in different directions. This last decade abounds with examples.

When the US invaded Iraq, the EU split between the adamant supporters, led by the UK, and the adamant opponents, led by France and Germany. It is difficult to imagine that the simple appointment of an EU trade policy supremo, as is now the case, will suffice to bridge these kinds of profound geopolitical differences.

A somewhat less dramatic but nevertheless revealing example was the split between a liberal North (the Scandinavian countries, The Netherlands, Germany and the UK) and a protectionist South (the Mediterranean countries with some allies in the East, e.g. Poland) in what was known as the 2005 “bra war” between the EU and China; this erupted as a result of an alleged “invasion” of the European market of Chinese textiles and garments (including bras) following the ending of the multi-fibre agreement, something which had been agreed to by WTO members ten years earlier. Further trade frictions occurred between EU members in 2008 with the advent of the great recession. The EU theoretically has a common trade policy, but it lacks a common trade ideology.

Things are calmer on the EU trade front at the moment, but that is primarily because the US has stalled the Doha Round. In all previous rounds, outcomes were determined by whatever arrangement was reached between the EU and US. That same tactic was attempted shortly before the WTO Cancun ministerial meeting in 2003 and lamentably failed. Today, the US will need other allies in trade, as in other areas - notably Brazil, India and/or China. Europe’s inability to get its economic act together was also well illustrated in the absence of a united response to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 - leading former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to describe EU policy as “half-baked”.

The most egregious example of the EU muddle has been the saga of the “Constitution/Lisbon Treaty”. This was a top-down process, whereby the EU leaders proposed to impose upon its citizens, without consultation and relatively sparse explanation, initially a Constitution, which, when rejected by referendums in France and The Netherlands in the spring of 2004, changed into a treaty signed in the Portuguese capital. The Lisbon Treaty, after some procedural travails, was eventually ratified on November 13, 2009. The saga - which lasted eight years, hence taking up much of the decade - showed not only the difficulty for Europe to adjust to a new order, but also how much the EU establishment had lost touch with the European public. If foreigners have difficulties understanding, let alone recognising, European “leadership”, so do Europeans!

The decade ended in December 2009 with the farcical spectacle of the appointment of an EU President and Foreign Policy Supremo, the Belgian Hermann van Rompuy and the British Lady (Catherine) Ashton, neither of whom have any significant global or even European experience.


The obsolescent nature of global governance in the 21st century is illustrated by many institutions, notably by the G7 where the EU is over-represented - France, Germany, Italy and the UK are members. This anomaly was partly rectified with the inauguration of the first G20 Summit in Washington in November 2008 and then with the confirmation at the Pittsburgh Summit in September 2009 that henceforth it would serve as the body of global economic governance. The EU instead of getting its act together through a coherent and cohesive single European representation, not only insisted on retaining the original four states of the G7, but three more - the Netherlands, Spain and the European Commission - were added. EU governance emerges as a noisy bundle of contradictions.

As European influence and prestige waned, one area where it could still claim leadership was in the climate change agenda. But even that eroded. The Copenhagen Conference has generally been seen as a failure, in some cases a fiasco. For the EU it was a humiliation. As the European host of what was supposed to be an event of immense significance, Denmark displayed an astonishing logistical and organisational ineptitude. That in itself was embarrassing. What was humiliating was the fact that the adamant position EU leaders had taken that Copenhagen should deliver a precise deal on carbon emissions was ignored. The EU had virtually no presence in Copenhagen; it was little more than a bystander: all ghost, no Hamlet!

From a more global perspective, a key lesson of Copenhagen is that US unilateralism is dead; multilateralism is the only option. But the new multilateralism as it has emerged this decade and was confirmed in Copenhagen places the EU more as a spectator than an actor. Copenhagen shows that the transatlantic alliance is moribund. President Obama’s time was mainly spent in seeking to woo the so-called “BASIC” countries - Brazil, South Africa, India and China. The “accord” that was reached had no EU input. The President of the European Commission learned of the deal in a text message on his cell phone.

On the basis of trends in the first decade of the 21st century, so vividly highlighted by Copenhagen, the next decade risks seeing an acceleration of European decline and increasing global irrelevance. This is regrettable. For all its failures and foibles, Europe - including in this vital area of climate change - has a good deal to offer. No trend is irreversible; hence these trends of European decline and irrelevance could conceivably be reversed. This would require, however, a major transformation in European mindsets - not just of the leadership but of the public as well - that at the dawn of the second decade of the 21st century is difficult to fathom.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Author

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor of International Political Economy and the founding director of The Evian Group at IMD.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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