The European Union seems determined to act like an ostrich, burying its head under mountains of foreign policy declarations. But while most EU governments pay lip service to the idea of creating a common foreign and security policy, they fail to address a key stumbling block - the fact that power, and the ability to project power, is distributed unequally across the member states.
Far from acknowledging this reality, EU members - old and new, big and small - insist on having an equal say in foreign policy decisions. The EU's unanimity rule remains the preferred means for decision-making in this field, although some limited exceptions are discussed.
True, consensus is important, because it provides credibility and legitimacy. But the reality is that some EU members are "more equal" than others, and the Union's more powerful members invariably resent external constraints. The same applies to other international organizations. Indeed, a root of the Bush administration's diminished interest in NATO can probably be found in the interventions of small countries in the military decisions - such as the choice of bombing targets - during the Kosovo War.
The reality of who actually possesses power in Europe has given rise to movement toward the creation of a foreign policy "triumvirate" comprising France, Germany, and the United Kingdom - something the leaders of the three countries will invariably discuss when they meet later this week. In terms of population, GDP, commercial and diplomatic outreach, culture, and military clout, these countries indisputably form Europe's core.
At times, this triumvirate acts to reinforce the EU's external influence. This happened when the British, French, and German foreign ministers journeyed to Iran last autumn, where they forged an agreement that would allow for international inspection of Iran's nuclear facilities.
On other occasions, however, the three countries give the impression of being mainly interested in presenting themselves as an exclusive club, triggering resentment among their EU partners. The problem for the EU is thus to find a mechanism that recognizes the international heft of the three without antagonizing the rest of the Union.
If Europeans want to take part in vital global decisions - as the EU security strategy outlined not long ago by Javier Solana argued - they must find a middle way between the unanimity rule and the reality of member states' actual power. Only by doing so can the Union achieve a more credible foreign and security policy and become a serious partner for the United States, its neighbors, and the rest of the world.
A practical way forward here is to establish a "European Security Council" to operate as a steering committee between the EU Council (which will have an unwieldy 25 members after this May's expansion) and the future European Foreign Minister envisaged by the draft constitution. A suitable model for the ESC might be the UN Security Council, which allows concerted or joint action should agreement exist amongst its members. Otherwise, states retain their freedom to act individually.
To make this body viable, realistic criteria must underpin its design. First, it must be small, with no more than, say, ten seats. Just a glance at an ordinary EU meeting room suffices to show that a council of 25-plus members is more talk show than decision-making body.
Second, the three major EU member states - France, Germany, and the United Kingdom - should be granted permanent seats. The three would thus receive the status they strive for, within a larger structure and without acting as a self-appointed directoire .
Representation of other EU member states in the ESC must take into account their population, economy, and military clout, which would allow an appropriate role and standing to such countries as Italy, Spain, and Poland. These and other EU members could rotate in the non-permanent seats.
Other ESC members could enhance their participation by forming groups based on geographical proximity or political criteria (non-NATO EU members could share a seat). In a different regional context, for instance, Argentina and Brazil recently agreed to coordinate the latter's term as non-permanent member in the UN Security Council during 2004-2005. Finally, the European Commission should receive a seat.
A European Security Council would act as a permanent advisory body for the future European Foreign Minister, contributing to building consensus inside and outside the Union. It would be ready to react rapidly in crisis situations, executing decisions that represent a common European viewpoint. The Foreign Minister and the European Security Council must be allowed to use all available European leverage to the fullest.
The driving force behind this scheme is the need for political instruments to reflect current power realities. EU member states - even the most powerful - cannot deliver on global issues such as the fight against terrorism, political reconstruction of the Middle East, the fight against poverty, and protection of the environment unless they agree on basic principles for common action.
Those principles must then be implemented effectively. It is overly optimistic to pretend that today's EU institutions can implement such principles, because they do not represent the prevailing power realities. If Europeans continue to build institutions that seek to satisfy all EU member states, they - individually and collectively - will be doomed to play a minor role on the global stage.