This weekend will see the second anniversary of the European Council's decision on 19 November 2009 to appoint Herman Van Rompuy as president of the European Council and Catherine Ashton as the high representative for foreign and security policy.
A second anniversary would not normally be worth noticing, but what is striking is how much – and how little – has happened in the space of a mere two years.
In the case of Ashton, it is a matter of how little has happened. The gap between potential and reality is still a chasm. So much should have happened and has not.
The promised strengthening of the EU's foreign and security policy has yet to emerge. The benefits from having a high representative who is also a vice-president of the European Commission are not clear. The dividend from the Lisbon treaty – approved two years ago this month – is a long time coming. The creation of the European External Action Service has been slower and more painful than it should have been.
Ashton is not solely responsible for the failures. The member states and Van Rompuy must take their share of the blame. (The latter because the Lisbon treaty lays down that “the president of the European Council shall ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy”.) Nonetheless, as the survivors from that 2009 European Council reflect on their choice, they might admit that they made the wrong one. Ashton's candidacy emerged at the eleventh hour – and the EU has paid the price for its shoddy selection procedures.
In the case of Van Rompuy, too much has happened. More precisely, the eurozone crisis has happened and has been so grave and so protracted that it is very difficult to assess the Council president's performance. Last week, he was recalling, striking a somewhat plangent note, that he had entered office with “an empty toolbox” and been forced to confront the eurozone crisis “with bare hands”.
Van Rompuy's record since he began in January 2010 is still positive, but it is less positive than it was. Events may have conspired against Van Rompuy, but all statesmen have to rise to the cards that they are dealt.
While it would be wrong to expect Van Rompuy to hog the limelight, because his personal style is understated, still that cannot exempt him from charges that he has remained at the mercy of events. As the eurozone crisis has dragged on, his failure to wrest back the initiative becomes more culpable. He shares – along with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the respective leaders of Germany and France – responsibility for the persistent failure of eurozone politicians to get ahead of events.
The European Union, of which Van Rompuy is one of the most important guardians (along with the president of the European Commission) is now paying a heavy price for that failure. The eurozone debt crisis is mutating into a painful debate about the EU itself. At the extreme ends of that debate – both Eurosceptic and Europhile – the arguments are being put for a break-up of the EU, or at least for the formation of rival configurations.
Such proposals strike at the heart of what the EU has been about for the past 60 years. The habits of economic and political solidarity – with or without overblown rhetoric – are based on a notion that member states at least aspire to common standards. The exceptions have been just that – exceptions. If the Union is to evolve into a multi-layered entity with different degrees of membership, it will be a dramatic change, politically and philosophically.
This is the challenge to which Van Rompuy must now rise. If he is to justify his selection two years ago, he must fight to save not just the eurozone, but the European Union.