Imagine you're the foreign minister of a European country that has broken Iraq's record of going longer than any democracy between an election and forming a new government (more than a year now). Your prime minister has just been caught in a scandal remniscent of that of former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner -- no pictures, but an inadvertent tweet of a love note to his mistress, who just happens to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Your shared currency, the euro, is in crisis and your national debt is 97 percent of GDP. And there is the ever-present question of whether your country will survive intact the endless disputes between its two major linguistic groups.
What to do?
Come to Washington and speak in the quarters of an elegant club about the future of a common foreign policy among the 27 member nations of the European Union.
That was the task this week of Belgium's Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, describing what he acknowledged was a hybrid of policy-making between national governments, which always will reserve the right to make decisions about war and peace, and a growing EU role and bureaucracy in international negotiations. There is now an EU foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, and a budding diplomatic corps being dispatched to missions around the world.
The minister acknowledged that European countries do not always act in unison, though he did not mention the current example of Libya where his country is flying combat missions, but others are staying out of the fray. But he added, "if they cannot act together, they can think and analyze things together."
"We are experiencing a shift of foreign policy paradigm, " Vanackere said. "It will still take time. But the challenge should inspire us."
The minister said Europe needs to improve its ability to respond more rapidly to events and what he called its "hard power capability." As he pointed out, the EU nations together have more soldiers than the U.S. but less-advanced equipment. The problem, he added, was not a shortage of money, even though defense expenditures continue to decline. Rather, it is failing to spend what they have efficiently. He advocated more integration among European militaries.
Vanackere insisted the Europeans are responding more effectively now to revolution in the Middle East and continued uncertainty in the Balkans than they did when the former Yugoslavia exploded in the early 1990s.
"Europe is doing something unimaginable 15 or 20 years ago," he said.
In response to questions, Vanackere also acknowledged that the EU was more unpopular now with European voters than at any time since its creation in the decades after World War II. But he blamed that unpopularity on European politicians, whom he said, take credit for positive developments in their countries but blame bad news on the EU.
Though specifically asked, he did not address the question of whether the EU's popularity would go further south as taxpayers in the richer nations such as Germany are called upon to finance even more bailouts for Greece and other poorer nations heading for insolvency.