BEIJING – As the new great game in Eurasia rumbles on, Europe in theory now has a unified voice. It’s an open question whether this will make any difference to key players such as China, Russia or the energy-rich “stans” in Central Asia.
Europeans were expecting bubbly Veuve Clicquot champagne. Instead, they were handed flat cola. The official European Union (EU) theme should not be Beethoven’s Ode to Joy but rather the soundtrack for Claude Lelouch’s cheesy 1960s epic Un Homme et une Femme, the immortal “shaba daba da … shaba daba da …”
With Belgian Herman van Rompuy now chosen as president of the European Council (along with his sidekick, the quasi-EU foreign affairs minister, British Baroness Catherine Ashton), it’s fair to argue most of the world now tends to see him as “President of Europe” – the number one trade and economic power in the world. But ask indigenous people in Bolivia, Laos or Mali and they would rather identify the duo as the white, bisexual, ultra-politically correct face of former colonialists.
The dashing duo was not directly elected by the citizens of the EU; it was chosen after a Byzantine/Machiavellian process carried out by 27 heads of state and slanted by heavyweights France and Germany. Green icon, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, dubbed this masterpiece of opacity “a caricature of democracy.” For all the lofty ideals of continental integration, a large contingent of European citizens remains absolutely horrified by the perspective of a European state while those who expect a lot from an unified Europe are usually, cruelly disappointed. Anyway it will be an uphill struggle to convince tens of millions that “The Voice” of unified Europe is now Van Rompuy’s when people were expecting nothing short of an European Barack Obama.
Ask the Chinese leadership in Beijing and off the record they might subtly imply that the immortal 1970s Henry Kissinger question still persists: “Which number do I dial when I want to talk to Europe?” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may still harbor Kissingerian doubts – even after the European Commission (EC) president, Joao Manuel Barroso, unmistakably stated she “should call Cathy Ashton.”
And nobody is exactly sure, in this new round of European integration, what the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty – which comes into effect this Tuesday – did in fact accomplish. For instance, the new appointments are unlikely to reduce by one the number of EU representatives in the United Nations Security Council. Not only France and Britain won’t have to be represented by the EU; Germany for its side wants to be part of a revamped, expanded Security Council.
Lady Ashton, I presume?
“Herman who?” cried European and world media in unison last November 19. The multilingual Van Rompuy, 62, is an anti-charisma Flemish Christian Democrat, and has been Belgium’s prime minister for only one year. His profile would fit a Vatican insider. He is a lover of haikus (Japanese poetry) and considered a very tough negotiator – but definitely not a visionary.
Ashton, 53, and – how delightful – a Labour Party baroness, is the former EU trade commissioner, discreet and consensus-prone, as the BBC described her. The so-called unified voice of the EU on foreign policy – the EU’s Hillary – never held elected office and has no foreign policy experience; until recently she was negotiating trade deals with South Korea. Baroness Ashton said she would pursue a policy of “quiet diplomacy” – which sharp tongues in Brussels already qualify as quiet to the point of irrelevance.
For billions around the world, the EU machine is as enigmatic as quantum physics. Brussels would say a unified presidency guarantees “more stability.” The new president could never be too powerful; he cannot play the role of a head of state and cannot be compared to the presidents of the US or China. He is in essence a good coordinator – a super-bureaucrat. As for the baroness, she will be the go-between between the 27 member states and the EU’s executive power, the EC. Her main role will be as a sort of coordinator on defense and security policy.
At least the EU managed the feat of getting rid of crusader former British premier Tony Blair – who still justifies the war on Iraq as a matter of “faith in democracy.” Ashton was the consolation prize for the Brits for the EU dumping of Blair. Eyebrows remain raised in both Paris and Berlin that Britain – which accepts neither the euro nor the Schengen treaty allowing free circulation of people, and remains to the millimeter aligned with the US – now represents the EU’s foreign policy.
Washington of course loved it; Obama stated the duo would strengthen the transatlantic relationship. But Turkey, for instance, was horrified, as Van Rompuy is dead set against Turkey’s drive to join the EU as a member state. Anyway, the complex negotiations with Turkey will continue to be led by the commissioner responsible for enlargement, and not Van Rompuy.
I want champagne in my pipeline
Europeans expect that at least their new energy pipelines won’t be filled with Canada Dry. It will be very enlightening to see Europe’s so-called new voice and “quiet diplomacy” applied to the things in life that really matter, for instance energy security – or Pipelineistan.
Pipelineistan will continue to fall under the EC’s trade and energy portfolios. This means that on a commercial level, the people from the EC will continue to be more powerful than Van Rompuy. By the same token, humanitarian aid and development – the EU is the biggest donor in the world – will still fall under EC powers. In short, EC president Joao Manuel Barroso’s people remain more powerful in terms of decision-making than the new dashing duo.
The “unified” EU is in deep trouble in Pipelineistan. A key issue is the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via Finland, Sweden and Denmark – what the Wall Street Journal delightfully called in early November “the Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline.”  This Pipelineistan gambit is not about attacking but rather conspicuously bypassing Poland alongside the “new Europe” Baltic states. Washington – still reeling from its insurmountable problems in Central Asia – is furious about it.
Nord Stream – registered in Switzerland and controlled by Russia’s Gazprom – means that Germany’s energy security has no place for those pesky Eastern Europeans. And this will inevitably translate as less US intrusion in German internal affairs via its “new Europe” American vassals. The balance of power in Europe has changed. Historically, France was always the counterweight to Germany. All over the 20th century the Anglo-US axis played the rivalry to its advantage.
This is over. Germany and Russia, as they have done in the past, are getting closer again. Very few in Europe – and even in Eastern Europe – are keen to send more North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops to wallow in the US quagmire in Afghanistan, or to renounce juicy dividends from Russian Pipelineistan. The bottom line is that the Van Rompuy/Ashton duo will not force Germany to share its power with Eastern Europe. And Germany would never dream of sacrificing its energy security to the mirage of “European solidarity.”
The new great game in Eurasia never sleeps. Apart from Nord Stream, there’s also what the EC calls its “strategic priority” – the Southern Corridor, of which the superstar is the perennially troubled Nabucco pipeline. Still no one knows all across Europe whether Nabucco is feasible.
While Europe dithers the Caucasus and Central Asia are advancing bold Pipelineistan moves. Caspian states Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are now committed to building the Baku-Black Sea pipeline. Oil from Kazakhstan will thus get to tankers in the Black Sea, reaching Romania and then the planned Pan-European Pipeline from Constanta to Trieste. This means in effect that Kazakhstan is about to set up its own, non-Russian-dependent energy corridor to South-Central Europe.
In the gas front things are much more complicated. It all depends on what inscrutable Turkmenistan will be up to. Will it be able to commit enough of its gas – currently exported via Russia – as to prompt a Western consortium to finally build the holy grail, a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenbashi to Baku with a connection to Nabucco?
In Turkmenistan, the EU is in direct competition with none other than China. Beijing, at its usual, no nonsense breakneck pace, has practically finished a China-Turkmenistan pipeline. And Russia will be back to importing Turkmen gas by early 2010, most of which will be resold to Europe at an enormously inflated price. This spells Russia in control, not Turkmenistan.
In sum, Kazakhstan will soon be heavily exporting oil to Europe. Azerbaijan is now positioned as both a key producer and transit country between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Turkey is definitely positioned as the top energy hub in the world – conduit for Russia’s South Stream and probable conduit if ever Nabucco gets built. Turkmenistan is already selling to Iran and wants to reach South Asia by all Pipelineistan nodes necessary, even the fabled Trans-Afghan pipeline. Russia and China are key Pipelineistan actors – as top producer and top consumer. In the New Great Game in Eurasia – the Pipelineistan chapter – the EU keeps playing in the junior league as neither Brussels nor an array of European capitals seem to be able to coordinate what they pompously call their energy security.
Mr. Wen, care for some cheap euros?
As for the Kissinger question, it simply won’t go away. In sum, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao will still be playing bilateral politics – and calling French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel or British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, not Van Rompuy.
And whatever shaba daba da changes come into effect, any weak yuan discussions will continue to fall under the EC’s Economic and Monetary Affairs commissioner. The spectacle of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China complaining about Chinese industrial overcapacity or about the weak yuan (because it hurts pricey European exports) – as they have done in a meeting this weekend in Nanjing – is also bound to continue.
It would be risible to expect the governor of the Chinese Central Bank, Zhou Xiaochuan – the de facto second-most powerful man in the country – to roll over to the EU’s wishes. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao put things in perspective as he insisted on a stable yuan as “crucial to Chinese economic stability.”
And as the EU rotating presidency is still in effect it was up to the Swedes, via Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, to come to Nanjing and deploy to the Chinese the usual menu. Please soften up North Korea and Myanmar. And please talk not sense but sanctions to the Iranian leadership – even while China keeps stressing its absolute non-interference in other countries’ internal matters. On Iran, few in “unified” Brussels seem to have listened to the Chinese ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe, when he said last week, “We must be very cautious to conclude that peaceful nuclear technology will be used for military ends.” Iran is absolutely essential for Chinese energy security.
Watching all this, one would be excused for wondering if, as the dashing duo of Van Rompuy and Ashton prepares its shaba daba da routine, the silky Chinese caravan will steadily be marching on towards unforetold, ever more auspicious, riches.
1. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, was an agreement officially titled the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and signed in Moscow on August 24, 1939. It was a non-aggression pact between the two countries and pledged neutrality by either party if the other were attacked by a third party. Each signatory promised not to join any grouping of powers that was “directly or indirectly aimed at the other party.” It remained in effect until June 22, 1941, when Germany implemented Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union.