By Pascal Boniface
The European Parliament elections turned out to be a democratic disaster. Massive abstention underscored the strong disinterest - if not mistrust - many European citizens have toward the election of their European representatives. This is not good news, now that the European Parliament has begun to wield more authority. In addition, the anti-institutional vote was important. Political parties supporting more European integration actually represent only a small percentage of European citizens. The protest vote is likely to trigger -- or more precisely reopen -- a debate over the legitimacy and popularity of European institutions.
Strangely, the euro-pessimism or euro fatigue so evident among Europeans themselves stands in stark contrast to the ambitions that non-EU citizens seem to hold for the EU. Neighboring countries want to join the EU and people in many parts of the world are eager to see Europe playing a more active international role, becoming a global player.
The situation is thus neither satisfactory nor gloomy. But if nothing is done it could worsen. When we look to Europe's near-term future, there is some reason to be pessimistic. Europe risks being downgraded as a power and losing credibility. The risk for Europe is to be a minor player in a world that is becoming multipolar.
In this regard, Obama's election is both good and bad news for Europeans. It represents hope for a U.S. open to multilateralism and greater cooperation with other nations. But Europe is not a top priority on Obama's strategic agenda. And such new American approaches could dilute one of Europe's main assets vis-à-vis most foreign countries: its use of soft power, in contrast with - and sometimes opposition to -- American hard - and occasionally brutal - power. With Obama in the White House, the United States could utilize both soft and hard power in a more convincing manner than Europe.
The EU's international policy is still largely dependent on great European powers. But French, German, Italian, Spanish, and British leaders seem to prefer to play solo rather than to cooperate. Rivalries - including personal ones - are stronger than collective approaches. The European Commission is composed of second rank people. None of the Commissioners are known outside Brussels - in fact most are not even known in their own countries. Current European Commission President Manuel Barroso, focused on his own probable re-election, seeks least common denominator policies and seems unable to launch ambitious projects.
Europe is sleeping while others poles of power are marching on. The awakening could be painful. The sooner the better.
Pascal Boniface is the Director of the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) in Paris.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.