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Europe's gone missing

At the G-20 summit, there will be Europeans at the table but no one speaking for a united Europe.

March 26, 2009|Timothy Garton Ash | Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.

When President Obama goes to London next week, he will find one great power missing at the world's summit table: Europe. Five of the leaders at the G-20 meeting will be Europeans, representing Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union, but the whole will be less than the sum of its parts. There will be plenty of Europeans but no Europe.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the European Parliament this week that Europe is "uniquely placed to lead the world." Maybe, but at the moment it's spectacularly failing to take that place. Europe's response to the biggest financial and economic crisis in 50 years has been weak and divided.

China and the U.S. have launched massive stimulus packages. By comparison, Europe has brought peanuts to the table. At the same time, Europeans have engaged in two other activities: squabbling among themselves about who gets which peanut and carping at the Americans.

Economist Christoph Schmidt, who gives the German government economic advice, complains bitterly about the United States pumping up its national debt and risking future inflation by printing money. At the same time, Germany once again waits for American consumers to lift its export industry out of the doldrums by spending those dollars. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

European solidarity does not even extend to other Europeans. Last week, EU governments were still quarreling in Brussels about the distribution of a tiny 5-billion-euro infrastructure fund. As for the poor cousins in Europe's east, they are largely left to fend for themselves -- although rich west Europeans will graciously intercede with the International Monetary Fund to ask it to offer them more.

To be fair, Europeans have got their act together on diplomacy with Iran, though it remains to be seen whether that unity would survive an American request for more economic sanctions on Tehran. On most of the other big issues on Obama's agenda -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, relations with Russia and China, nuclear proliferation -- there is no Europe. There are individual European countries.

Europe has spent the best part of 10 years failing to get its act together. A decade that began with ambitious plans for a European constitution ends with the fate of a much more modest Lisbon Treaty hanging on a dubiously democratic attempt to persuade the Irish to alter their "no" to a "yes." If we Europeans had spent half the time we wasted in that debate simply coordinating our actions under existing treaties, we would be in a better position today. Europe talks the talk but does not walk the walk.

Every EU member state bears some responsibility for this shambles, as does the institutional leadership in Brussels. But its three largest member states are especially to blame. It was France's "no" that killed the original constitutional treaty. Britain's New Labor government came to power in 1997 promising a new era in relations with Europe. Instead, Britain has reverted to type, preferring to play second fiddle to Washington rather than take its place in the front row of a European orchestra. Britain's European engagement will further diminish under the Conservatives, if they win the next election. Without Britain, there can be no serious European foreign policy.

The biggest change, however, is in Germany. Ten years ago, Helmut Kohl had only recently stepped down as chancellor. Germany was still the major European country most fully committed to European unification. But there were voices on the right and the left suggesting that Germany should step out from the shadows and become a "normal" country -- more like France and Britain. Those voices have triumphed. Today's Berlin republic has no compunction about putting its short-term national interests first.

This may not be Angela Merkel's personal preference. But in a year of elections, the competition for votes will not be won by politicians who suggest sacrificing a single German job, euro or soldier to a larger European or Western interest. Neither the Americans nor the Chinese see Europe as a single, coherent partner. The G-20 seems to be gaining acceptance as a framework for global collective action, at least in financial and economic policy. To make such frameworks work, you always need a strategic coalition of major players. Increasingly, one hears talk of a G-2 inside the G-20 -- the U.S. and China. Yet it's the EU, not China, that has an economy the size of America's. The strategic coalition should be a G-3. But where is Europe?

If we Europeans carry on like this, we will have chosen not to hang together -- and we will end up hanging separately.

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