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Doug Saunders (Randy Quan)
Doug Saunders (Randy Quan)

Doug Saunders

Europe's three-headed monster Add to ...

On Thursday morning, I sat before the president of the European Union, José Manuel Barroso. He explained in exuberant English that Greece's problems would be solved without the help of the International Monetary Fund.

Next, I heard from the president of the European Union, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. He emphasized in brusque Spanish that Greece would require "fundamentally a European solution" with no help from outside bodies like the IMF.

A few hours later, the room was occupied by the president of the European Union, Herman Van Rompuy. In patient French, he explained definitively and finally that Greece would be bailed out with the help of the IMF.

Three presidents, three answers, three points of view. This is no way to operate the world's largest economy and oversee the lives of 500 million people. Brussels has failed to take a seat beside Washington and Beijing because, at root, nobody can agree who the leaders really are.

That problem was supposed to be solved with the appointment late last year of Mr. Van Rompuy, the respected Belgian fix-it man who is meant to be the top figure in Europe.

He is the new permanent head of the European Council, the gathering of all 27 member leaders that sets the bloc's policies. His job was created in October when the Lisbon Treaty, the EU's new constitution, was ratified.

But the treaty, rather absurdly, did not replace the existing leadership of Europe with Mr. Van Rompuy and his administration. It added them on.

The other two presidents remain in place, as powerful as ever. Mr. Barroso, a respected Portuguese leader, is the appointed president of the European Commission, the EU's top administrative body. He appoints and oversees the civil service. For six years, he has been the public face of the EU at international gatherings, and he shows no signs of wanting to give that role up.

Mr. Zapatero, whom you may recognize from his day job as Prime Minister of Spain, holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union (not to be confused with the European Council). This position, held by a different country each six months, was the old way of leading the EU.

Back in the fall, most Europhiles told me confidently that the old rotating presidency would just fade away. But Mr. Zapatero had other ideas: He wanted to use his six months to make a big splash and impose a distinctly Spanish and Social Democratic vision on conservative, northern-dominated Europe. The next rotating presidents, Belgium and Hungary, will want to do something similar.

Spain organized a series of major international summits in Madrid. A major U.S.-EU summit is scheduled for May. Mr. Zapatero was shocked, last month, when President Barack Obama declined to attend.

That was described as a major snub, a sign of Europe's decline. This may be true, but it is also true, I'm told, that the White House received equally urgent invitations from the offices of Mr. Barroso and Mr. Van Rompuy. "Obama didn't know who was the leader of Europe," says a senior European Commission official, "so he simply decided to ignore Europe entirely."

This was mainly of interest to government-structure wonks until Greece began to slide into bankruptcy amid fears it could set off a spiral of distrust that pulled the whole euro zone down with it. For the past two months, Europe has been paralyzed with inaction, in good part because nobody could be clear who was the leader.

Germany, the only European country solvent enough to bail out Greece, didn't want a cash-handout solution. France, the political strongman in the federation, didn't want any outside body like the IMF to help, because that would signal a failure of Europe's currency union to regulate itself. (I'm still not entirely sure why, as non-euro zone EU members Hungary and Latvia both underwent IMF bailouts without controversy.) France doesn't trust Germany on these matters. Mr. Barroso's office does not speak to Mr. Van Rompuy's office on these matters. Mr. Zapatero dances to his own tune. Different leaders issued different statements. Chaos ensued.

In the end, in the wee hours of Friday morning, a passable solution was reached. Mr. Van Rompuy, ever the peacemaker, allowed the IMF to be brought in a little bit, and Mr. Barroso and Mr. Zapatero pretended they'd always thought that was a good idea.

Completely dysfunctional, multi-headed federal governments can sometimes come together to solve their internal problems when a crisis looms, as we've seen in Washington this week and in Ottawa on numerous occasions.

But as a way to build a European superpower, this just isn't going to work. There's no trust, no direction, and three very different men at the helm. The word "Union" cannot really apply when a government competes with itself.

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