When looking on from Milwaukee at the outcome of the lenghty debates around the EU top posts, and particularly the final act that saw David Sassoli named as Head of the European Parliament -, I could not help recalling an interview given by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary of George W. Bush to Dutch journalist Charles Groenthuizen, on 22 January 2003.
The interview took place when Europe was hesitating about the American intervention in Iraq. Recalling his time as US Ambassador to NATO, Rumsfeld said, “I found that… on any major issue, if there’s leadership … Europe always responds,” but he then added, “Now, if you’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France, I don’t. I think that’s old Europe … The centre of gravity is shifting to the East.”
Rumsfeld obviously enjoyed his statement, which he repeated on several occasions. Faced, however, with a major uproar in many of Europe’s Capitals, he claimed that his comment was unintentional, but also admitted that he was amused by the ruckus caused by his declaration.
Coming back to the appointment of the new EU team, one cannot refrain also from referring to the Golden Era of EU decision-making, the Mitterrand-Kohl-Delors trio, which provided undisputable leadership and an impulse to the European project. A quarter of a century later, the exact same linear thread seems to have emerged from the consultations with the old Franco-German axis clearly behind the scenes.
A German in Brussels as head of the Commission; a French citizen in Frankfurt as the head of the European Central Bank, and, in the middle, a Benelux representative to put the people around the table. And last but not least, the appointment of two Southern Europeans – and long-standing EU members – in two other key posts. There’s obviously a lot of French President Emmanuel Macron behind this result, which fits perfectly with his Sorbonne Speech of 22 September 2017 and his op-ed in key newspapers in all 28 Member States earlier this year.
But reflecting a bit deeper, there is more to it than a caricature of old revenges. There are strong symbols and indications as well – if the appointments are ultimately confirmed. The first is that both the German and French appointees are women, and that a woman will, for the first time, head the European Commission. The second is the strong signal sent to the populists and Eurosceptics with an Italian Social-Democrat at the European Parliament and the absence of any Central or East European representative.
In a world marked by increasing division and uncertainty, at the fringe of devastating trade wars and the pressure of climate urgency, Europe must give a strong political signal, with a clear vision of where it wants to go. It seems that the proposed team, with all the symbolic reminiscences it provides, has the potential and the coherence to do exactly that.
The continent has no time for complacency or hesitations. If it takes the traditional combination to do the job, we need to be behind it.