To avoid creeping irrelevance, Europe must find a collective voice on the international stage.

Gradually the realisation is dawning - unless Europeans manage to combine their collective weight in international affairs, they will find themselves increasingly marginalised in the new ‘post-American' world.

Across Europe, even in such psychologically remote outposts as London, the thought is taking hold that it would be better for all of us if we could manage to speak to Russia, and to China, with one voice. But nowhere has the penny, or indeed centime, dropped that this approach should apply with equal force to transatlantic relations.

In a report I recently co-authored for the European Council on Foreign Relations with Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution, we argue that the disjointed approaches of the different European member states to Washington are selling European interests short, and leaving the US frustrated and disappointed. Based on research across all 27 members of the EU, we diagnose a pervasive European nostalgia for the time when the US led the ‘free world'. In exchange for protection, and a junior role in the partnership that ran the world, Europeans offered the US solidarity. The arrangement worked well for both sides.

Sadly, no such deal is any longer on offer. But Europeans retain a psychological block about fronting up to the US (except in trade negotiations, where they have learned how to stand their ground). Over the Israel-Palestine conflict, sensing but refusing to acknowledge that US interests are fundamentally different, Europeans have been content to seek refuge in the role of fee-paying spectators. In relation to Russia, or Afghanistan, the EU - or, to be more accurate, the leaders of the EU's member states - have been only too happy to duck the issues, remitting discussions to NATO where, brutally, Europeans can rely on the US to tell them what to do.

In consequence, Europeans now have 30 000 troops in Afghanistan and no say in the strategy - and they remain deeply divided on how to handle Russia.

The idea of a common EU line vis à vis the US seems almost indecent; the European nations prefer to engage with the US through NATO, or bilaterally. For it is not only the British who foster the illusion of a ‘special relationship' - most other Europeans also like to think that they have a special inside track with Washington.

Ironically, whilst Europeans are in denial over the implications of a post-American world, the Obama administration is meeting it half way. They have embraced what they call a ‘multi- partner strategy', dealing with any global power centre that can help them achieve their objectives. They have invited Europeans to step up to such a partner role - and have been disappointed, if not surprised, by the lack of response.

In short, their excessive deference to the US, and their reluctance to identify and assert common European positions, serves neither Europeans' own interests nor those of the US. The dreaded ‘irrelevance' beckons, for individual European states every bit as much as for the EU. At long last, the new Lisbon Treaty arrangements offer hope of a more effective and coherent EU foreign policy. But in matters of foreign policy ‘Brussels' will remain powerless without the member states - especially the biggest. The future of the transatlantic relationship is in their hands.

This piece was first published by Progress on 5 November 2009.  

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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.