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reflections

Nov 4, 2009 | 02:55 GMT

6 mins read

The Lisbon Treaty's Geopolitical Context

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
CZECH PRESIDENT VACLAV KLAUS signed the Lisbon Treaty on Tuesday, which means it will take effect Dec. 1. After signing, Klaus reiterated his opposition to the treaty, claiming that "the Czech Republic will cease to be a sovereign state" once it is in force. To understand the Lisbon Treaty, one must put it into geopolitical context. The coming century will be defined by U.S. power. The United States has profited greatly from its geography: It is a continent-wide power with superb river and coastal transportation networks, as well as access to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The United States has used its favorable geography, along with the technological advances in communications and transportation that have made governance on a continental level possible, to become the undisputed global hegemon. Other powers, using the United States as a model, will seek to harness the natural, demographic and technological resources within their continents to compete with the United States and each other. The European Union today is not a coherent continental actor. The key motivation for the Lisbon Treaty is the realization by Europe's main powers — France and Germany — that as individual states they do not matter on the world stage, but they do matter insofar as they can rule their entire continent. The changes that will be implemented under the treaty are meant to give Germany and France the tools they need to dominate a more coherent Europe, if they can coordinate their European and foreign policies. The Lisbon Treaty is Europe's effort to create a decision-making structure that will turn the EU’s disjointed political reality into a coherent whole. Several events in recent years, including the unilateral U.S. action in Iraq, Russia's periodic natural gas shutoffs to Europe, its intervention in Georgia, and China's inevitable overtaking of Germany as the world's largest exporter — all outcomes that Europe's powers could not prevent or influence in any way — have caused the Europeans to realize that, as individual countries, they are rapidly becoming irrelevant. In today's geopolitical setting, world-spanning empires ruled by individual European capitals are unthinkable. Political power in the 21st century will have to be harnessed at the continental level. Competition between Germany and the United Kingdom — at one time the pivot of global politics — will now become merely regional politics. The European Union today is not a coherent continental actor. The global recession that emerged in late 2008 put incredible strain on EU institutions that were set up to coordinate economic policy among the member states. In 2010, it is expected that every EU member except Bulgaria will be in violation of rules on budget deficits, and the union has no political will to do anything about it. In effect, the rules set up by the Maastricht Treaty are being ignored, and the EU’s coordinated economic policy no longer exists. Meanwhile, the crisis brought economic nationalism back in force: Every country looked to protect its key industries — with little regard for EU rules on competition. The EU is therefore very much a collection of disunited states in a world that is quickly becoming dominated by entities that rival continents in scope. The Lisbon Treaty is designed to empower Europe to emerge as such a continental entity. But the odds are not in the EU’s favor. First, the cause of Europe's inherent political disunity is geography. While its coastlines and rivers allow for relatively low-cost transportation and communication, its mountains, peninsulas and islands have allowed various political entities to survive and resist amalgamation. The European Union is not Europe's first attempt at unification; other attempts, from Charlemagne to Napoleon to Hitler, failed because of Europe's political heterogeneity. Second, suspicions of a Franco-German axis run high throughout Europe. Even if the Czech Republic and other small and medium-sized states could be convinced that giving up their sovereignty in the face of increased continental competition would benefit them, they would be unlikely to accept leadership from Berlin and Paris without a fight. After all, it was France and Germany that first turned to economic nationalist policies when the current economic recession struck. Paris was quick to urge its automobile companies to close factories in new EU states in Central Europe. Berlin did much the same when it supported a plan for automotive manufacturer Opel that would keep the company’s German plants open while closing down those in Spain, the United Kingdom and Belgium. Third, France and Germany are in no way assured of blissful cooperation in the future. There are plenty of obstacles to such cooperation, particularly economic interests. The French hope to continue to use the EU as a financial scheme from which to fund their enormous agricultural subsidies, while the export-oriented Germans frown on the deficit-fueled domestic consumption of which France, Italy and other European countries are so fond. But these are matters for the Europeans to work out. On the grand geopolitical stage, the Lisbon Treaty portends a much larger — and potentially more critical — possibility. The United States' rivals, such as Russia and China, will welcome the perception that the European Union is becoming a coherent continental entity. If there is to be a deep and meaningful challenge to U.S. hegemony, it will require a massive economic core that neither Russia nor China can supply. Russia is a commodities exporter, China a manufactured-goods exporter. Combined, their domestic markets and inherent mass capital generation are an order of magnitude less than the United States'. But by these measures, a combined Europe would be the United States' peer. The Lisbon Treaty hardly preordains a united Europe, let alone a challenge to U.S. hegemony in the global system. But Lisbon does make a world not dominated by the United States theoretically possible, however unlikely that end might be. And for Russia and China, which are traditionally nervous about U.S. power, the possibility will have to suffice for now.

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