The EU woke up this year to a new world – not just because it now has the Lisbon treaty, but also because in December it was given two rude awakenings to its inadequacies as an international player.
Firstly, at Copenhagen it found itself marginalised when the US took over the initiative, striking a deal directly with China, India, South Africa and Ethiopia. Its semi-official strategy – to set ambitious targets, bring the G77 group of developing countries on board and force a response from the US and China – failed on all fronts.
Secondly, on 24 December, Eritrea was sanctioned by the UN Security Council and its EU members – a decision that highlighted that the European Commission is out of line with its own members as well as the international community. This very small country is the world's second-largest source of asylum-seekers, most of whom head for the EU. Reporters Without Borders ranks its press as the world's least free, Human Rights Watch calls it an “open-air prison”, others have called it “the North Korea of Africa”, and few (if any) EU member states still co-operate with it. Yet, in 2009, the Commission initialled a €120 million programme for the next three years and the then development commissioner, Louis Michel, received its dictatorial president, Isaias Afwerki, as warmly as any other statesman. This when MEPs were being refused visas.
What December showed, in short, is that the EU acts incoherently, overestimates its own power, underestimates others' and – as a result – too frequently fails to deliver. It has been transfixed while the world order has moved on.
The shock of Copenhagen should help correct the EU's overestimation of itself. But will it correct its underestimation of others' power? If it forges an alliance with the G77 on climate change, we can perhaps say ‘Yes'. At Copenhagen, the EU's problem was that its semi-official strategy was undermined by a strategy that proved a higher priority: to keep a position to which the US could agree.
As for the third problem evident recently, internal inconsistency, that challenge should be eased by the Lisbon treaty and resulting structural changes. In late 2009 there was a risk that commissioners' responsibilities would continue to be split by region rather than by policy area. While there remain areas of uncertainty about the post-Lisbon administrative set-up, at least the portfolios of commissioners are now aligned with the Commission's administrative responsibilities. For a start, Andris Piebalgs's responsibilities as development commissioner(-designate) include EuropeAid. That was not the case under Michel, effectively rendering EuropeAid a lame duck.
The combination of a more logically organised Commission and a single foreign policy chief – Catherine Ashton – increases the chances of forging more coherent EU policies and also of establishing a strong alliance with developing countries on climate change. Whether that will happen depends on Ashton's ability to put together a strong diplomatic service and on Piebalgs's ability to create space for development co-operation and to convince the G77 that the EU could be an ally.
Piebalgs is a man well-suited for that challenge. His background as a former energy commissioner will come in handy in climate-mitigation co-operation with developing countries. And, as a Latvian expert on energy, he could emerge as a persuasive force in efforts to convince the EU's new and less economically advanced member states of the value of a broad alliance with the G77. Since he managed to establish a constructive relationship with Russia in his previous post, Piebalgs may even be able to persuade Russia. But are such hopes too influenced by the start of a new year, a new treaty and a new Commission?
Mirjam Van Reisen is the director of the Europe External Policy Advisors and author of “Window of opportunity” on EU development co-operation policy.