By voting to accept the Lisbon Treaty last week, the Irish breathed new life into the European Union. Now, the next few months will determine whether Europe will take advantage of this golden opportunity -- or pass it up entirely.
There are a number of questions currently facing the EU. The Lisbon agreement, designed to make decision making in the 27-member club more efficient, calls for the establishment of an EU president. It is vital that this position is filled by someone who can command respect on the international stage. But will the EU be able to agree on who that someone should be?
Furthermore, with the Lisbon Treaty now likely to go through -- Poland and the Czech Republic represent the last remaining hurdles -- will the EU be able to agree on an ambitious and inspiring agenda for the coming years? Or will it fall back on the parochialism that has characterized EU politics so far this decade?
The answers to these questions depend largely on the new government Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently cobbling together in Berlin.
Only Germany Can Lead
Germany at the moment is the only remaining motor of Europe. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has fallen too deeply in love with French grandeur to be a credible leader for Europe. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is politically crippled and his potential successor, David Cameron, is a vehement Euro-skeptic. Of the big three, only Germany can lead the EU into the future.
But it is far from certain whether the new government will take up that mantle. The temptation is great to continue the populist tones and general lack of interest which characterized the Europe policies of Merkel's last government. Merkel's campaign platform emphasized the "Christian roots" of the EU and it would not be difficult to imagine her government focusing its Europe policy on keeping Turkey out of the club -- a position which would certainly find agreement in the Sarkozy government.
Dangers for Europe can be found in the Christian Social Union -- the CDU's Bavarian sister party -- as well. Party head Horst Seehofer famously said that "for me, the term populist is not an insult" -- and party General Secretary Alexander Dobrindt has taken that message to heart with his recent robust tirades against the EU. Indeed, the Free Democrats (FDP), Merkel's new coalition partners, are comparatively Europe-friendly. But danger lurks even here: the party's campaign platform expresses vehement opposition to any increase in the EU budget.
Ambitious European Program
Were the new government to shirk its European responsibilities, it would be a betrayal of the legacy established in the years from 1949 to 2002, during which the German government pushed hard for an ever-deeper European unity -- often in the face of initial skepticism from German voters. A unified market and a common currency would have been unthinkable without German leadership. Indeed, it was CDU-FDP coalitions, led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher, which showed courage and far-sightedness. For Angela Merkel and current FDP head Guido Westerwelle, the approaching 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9 presents an ideal chance to further their legacy. The two want to present a coalition agreement before the big day -- that agreement should include an ambitious European program.
After almost a decade of tortured debates about institutions, influence and responsibilities within the EU -- discussions which Europeans met with deafening indifference -- the EU needs another grand project to generate enthusiasm and confidence for the future of the European Union.
The most obvious choice would be a deepening of Europe's collective foreign and security policy. Despite large support from EU citizens, European governments have thus far not made nearly as much progress as they have promised.
Merge Armed Forces
A clear commitment to a European army and a European civil reconstruction corps would not just reinvigorate EU integration, but it would also make the bloc a much bigger player on the international stage. The FDP has committed itself to the creation of a European army. Merkel's new government could prove its commitment to Europe by taking the first step and offering to merge its armed forces with those of France.
Naïve and illusory? That is how Kohl's first steps toward a common European currency were described. Not compatible with NATO and US interests? The US, overstretched as it currently is, would welcome any attempt to increase Europe's military capacity.
At the same time, however, Europe's new institutions, created by the Lisbon Treaty, must be brought to life. The first European Union president, who will be named soon, will point the way to the future. Germany needs to begin building a broad coalition to install a candidate who will be able to wield power beyond Europe's borders. A small-minded evisceration of this office would have catastrophic consequences -- as can be seen by the fate of the luckless European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, a candidate chosen by virtue of being the lowest common denominator.
EU Seat in the G-20
The Lisbon Treaty also calls for a unified foreign policy, and this too must be transformed into a powerful instrument of European influence. EU diplomacy must find new ways to work efficiently with its strategic partners. In the case of Russia, that means that the long delayed détente between Russia and Central and Eastern Europe must be carried forward. In the case of China and India, already-established cooperation agreements must be filled with life. Instead of lobbying for a permanent German seat on the United Nations Security Council, the new German government should seek a European Union seat in the G-20.
Leadership involves risk taking, and it means avoiding selling cheap solutions to the voters. In May, Guido Westerwelle -- head of the FDP and likely to become Germany's next foreign minister -- wrote "it has become all too common to blame Brussels when unpopular decisions must be made, even when the responsibility for these decision lie with us.... We want a European Union that plays an active role in the world and lives up to its responsibility in addressing questions related to the future." One can only hope that Westerwelle will remember these words and that the new government takes appropriate action.