Damian Chalmers: Europe is in love with symbols, but the reality is much more dull

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At the last European summit 18 days ago, the continent's leaders were discussing international issues of critical importance. Today, they meet again, and the drumroll is just as deafening – but the agenda doesn't match. Rarely, if ever, has there been such a distinguished gathering and such political investment to consider such undistinguished jobs.

The most prominent role, of course, is President of the European Council. But while it's a great title, it's not so great a job. Its origins lie in the idea that it should be the European Council, the meetings of the heads of state, that runs the shop. At the moment, however, there isn't the infrastructure.

That is not all. Heads of state may have made clear that they do not want a charismatic figure who wishes to seize the agenda. This would simply be too divisive. They have opted, instead, for a facilitator. It is a post similar to that of Cabinet Secretary – except with only four meetings a year, and no civil service of its own for support. What input can it offer in the circumstances?

The details of the High Representative position are a little different. It's a rubbish title, but potentially a great job. Its purpose is to provide joined up policy-making between member states, and to provide a single port of call for foreign states. The High Representative has, consequently, loads of powers.

And yet almost nobody seems to want the job. This may be because the post does not join up foreign policy but instead straddles a number of unmanageable fault lines. The issues are simply too difficult and sensitive for one figure. There is a real danger that the job might be a paper tiger.

So how have we come to this? The explanation is simple. The European Union, along with the majority of its advocates and critics, long ago fell in love with symbols. It wanted a single figure for Europe that citizens could point to, a single figure whom President Obama could ring when he wanted to talk to Europe.

The problem with symbols is that, by definition, they can never survive contact with reality. The dull facts of these jobs barely resemble the grandeur of their stated purpose. But, in the end, we simply do not want a single figure running a pan-European foreign policy, any more than we want a European head of state. This event was always likely to be hubristic. The disconnection between the symbol and the reality has made it a little unsettling, as well.

Damian Chalmers is head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics

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