Stop the traffic, they won?t, but Van Rompuy and Ashton will do better: they will build a traffic system.

In today's newspapers the appointment of Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy, as president of the European Council, and Britain's Catherine Ashton, as EU "high representative" for foreign affairs, is broadly seen as a demonstration of Europe's inability to punch its weight. Neither are likely to "stop the traffic" in Moscow, Beijing or Washington, to use David Miliband's phrase. But their immediate task is not to stop the traffic; it is to create a traffic system that EU leaders can use to improve their policy cooperation and coordination. 

Since the 1960s, the EU's foreign policy has been an adjunct to the Union's main purpose - creating a free, internal market. By design, the European Community represented the "low politics" of trade and commerce. European governments, on the other hand, dealt with the "high politics" of foreign and security policy. Nobody was going to trust wily Jean Monnet with Europe's foreign policy.

The last fifty years has seen incremental steps forward, starting with the European Defence Community, the Fouchet Plans, the European Political Cooperation and recently the Treaties of Amsterdam, Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon. In that time EU foreign policy has moved from a kind of gentlemen's agreement between states to consult each other on occasion, to a system of formal obligations, complete with organisations, budgets, staffs, and permanent headquarters. At the same time, EU states shifted from a bargaining style of cooperation to a problem-solving one, and EU foreign relations saw the fusion of inter-governmental, trans-governmental, and supranational methods of policy-making.

It is this complex and unique system that now needs to be developed further. Not into a state, with directly elected leaders, but into a never-before-seen system of governance. This needs to respect the differences and viewpoints of the twenty-seven EU states, while also seeking to develop a joint approach to common challenges where one is relevant.

Doing so is key if EU governments hope to make their voices heard in the world. Without greater coherence and cooperation, European countries, however big and rich, risk becoming bystanders in a G2 world dominated by China and the US. Though the transatlantic relationship remains the strongest political, security and economic partnership, in a post-American world where power is shifting from West to East, the United States knows it needs effective partners. And if Europe cannot step up, the US will look for other privileged partners to do business with.

The consequences of a "G2 world" will not only lead to a diminution of global European influence, but a retreat from many of the things that European governments favour and have championed the past: a rules-based international system, the human rights agenda and a global economy tempered by social and environmental concerns. Such a retreat will likely have a direct impact on Europe's 500 million citizens, who are exposed to global risks as never before - through finance, climate change, potential pandemics, and the spill-over of insecurity and violence from fragile states. Dealing with these challenges at Europe's borders alone is unlikely to make a difference.

A joined-up EU foreign policy is not a choice, in other words, between more or less nation-state. Or indeed between more of less ‘Europe'. It is a choice between being able to provide essential public goods to Europe's citizens - or not. There are definite legal and political limits to EU integration. The German Constitutional Court recently made this clear, ruling that the Lisbon Treaty does not transform the EU into a federal state, and that such a transformation would violate German constitutional law.

Steps toward greater policy coherence will be crucial if European governments want to have a greater impact abroad than merely through the magnetic pull of EU membership. President-elect Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton seem well-placed to build consensus for such a system. Chosen unanimously, backed by big and small states alike, and representing both Right and Left, the Rompuy-Ashton team is more likely to bring EU governments, European legislatures and the European Parliament with them, than would have, say, Tony Blair or Massimo D'Alema. Policy ideas are important, but not enough.

The people who built the European Union were hardly traffic-stoppers in their own countries. Jean Monnet was never elected to public office, Walter Hallstein was a little-known a professor and bureaucrat, and Sicco Mansholt a Dutch minister of Agriculture, Fishery and Food Distribution. Even Jacques Delors, the father of the Single Market and a former French Economics and Finance Minister was a surprise choice as Commission President. They all helped further the EU's development not because they grand-stranded, stopped the proverbial traffic or were borne high by US-style rhetoric. They succeeded because they heeded Jean Monnet's dictum: "Nothing is possible without men; nothing is lasting without institutions." The careers of President-elect Van Rompuy and High Representative-elect Ashton suggest the pair understand this key to EU success.

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.