Review of the Year 2009: The EU

Let's hear it for the grand tradition of Euro-muddle
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The choices made by European Union leaders on that momentous November evening in Brussels would, President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "go down in European history". Even by Mr Sarkozy's standards of boastfulness – imagine Toad of Toad Hall on speed – it appeared a somewhat fanciful claim.

The 27 EU leaders had just brought to an end eight years of arguments on how to stop the EU arguing so much. After painful negotiations, misleading claims, counter-claims, referenda and second referenda, the enlarged EU could finally "work more effectively", "come closer to the people", and "take its place on the world stage".

And as the figureheads to symbolise this Brave New Europe, the 27 leaders had chosen ... a Belgian politician scarcely known in Belgium 18 months earlier; and an obscure, never-elected British politician whose main attraction for Continental leaders was that she was not, and never would be, Tony Blair.

In a sense, President Sarkozy was right. The meeting in Brussels that night was a historic moment. It was the culmination not just of eight years of arguments over a "European constitution", or its somewhat abridged successor, the "Lisbon Treaty". It was the end of a long process which had begun almost exactly 20 years before, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

The great, mostly unsung achievement of the EU over the past two decades – however muddled and, occasionally, unwilling – has been to bind a large part of the old Soviet bloc into steady progress towards democracy, legality and an open market. By almost doubling in the process, from 15 to 27 member states, the EU had, in theory, become even more unmanageable than it has always been.

The larger EU needed, it was agreed, simplified rules of decision-making. It needed a semi-permanent European Council President and a High Representative for foreign affairs to give European citizens – and non-European governments – European leaders that they could recognise and trust.

Why, having persuaded themselves of the wisdom of all of that, did the 27 EU leaders then select Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Cathy Ashton – two names that would have been on no one's short-list of the memorable or inspiring?

In the small town of Echternach in Luxembourg each year, there is a parade in which the marchers take one step back for every two steps forward. The EU has always been a procession d'Echternach in which even the allegedly federal, Europe-minded states try to claw back, or restrain, the concessions that they make to Brussels. (All the same, Eurosceptic fundamentalists in Britain managed to espy in the new appointments a further lurch towards a European super-state.)

The choices of Mr Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton – honourable, competent, uninspiring people – also told us something about the state of political leadership in Europe. In truth, other than the flawed candidature of Tony Blair, there were no truly memorable or inspiring contenders for either of the two new posts. Even if there had been, it became evident that a clutch of EU capitals – led by Berlin – was opposed to the whole notion of a charismatic president of the European Council.

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, favoured the idea, but Berlusconi's credibility – never great – had been corroded by a year of new revelations of sexual escapades and doubtful business dealings. President Sarkozy had also, originally, favoured a strong Euro-president, partly to ensure that there would be a suitable job for a young, energetic, former President of France a few years down the road.

Sarkozy was rapidly persuaded by Chancellor Angela Merkel that the idea – and especially the candidature of Tony Blair – was a non-starter. Merkel was triumphantly re-elected in September. She is by far the most assured, and secure, political leader in Europe. Why should she be so opposed to the appointment of a forceful personality as the first president of the European Council?

German officials say that she is naturally suspicious of charisma in politicians. The suspicion extends to Sarkozy, despite what may well be a temporary reformation of the Franco-German alliance. Beyond that, Merkel is said to believe that the painful search for consensus (aka muddle) is the safest and most natural state of affairs in Brussels. An inspired European Council president would, she believes, bring more trouble, not less.

The German and French leaders agreed therefore to go for a managerial candidate from the majority Pan-European political grouping to which they both belong. This was almost the first example of the European People's Party, which used to include the British Conservatives, using its cross-border party-political muscle.

If David Cameron is the next UK prime minister, he may come to regret that he has pulled the Conservatives out of a rising force in the EU: even if that rising force is dedicated to the principle of Euro-muddle-through-as-usual.