Of course, the truth is much more complicated, and also much less devastating than that. The EU has, in terms of ‘hard’ power, never played a huge role on the world stage. Henry Kissinger famously remarked he did not know who to call when he had to call Europe, and that is still the case. The fact that only a handful of staff at the Commission have been allocated to the so-called top priority duty called international climate diplomacy certainly has not helped.
But in practice, the EU’s global influence takes place in a much less visible way: through the gradual adoption of European rules. These often have massive weight, because the EU is the world’s biggest economic zone, and a very open one too. Examples outside the climate field are the EU’s accounting rules and the ‘Reach’ chemicals regulation. In the field of environment and transport, the ‘Euro’ standards (EU rules on car and lorry air pollution) are copied throughout Asia, including China, India and Russia. The CO2 rules for cars and – for better or worse – the biofuels sustainability standards also set such a global precedent. The EU’s prohibition of single-hull tankers following massive oil spills disasters with the Erika and Prestige tankers meant that a de facto global standard was set.
Yes, the EU needs to beef up its diplomatic service. In that sense it is very urgent that Catherine Ashton, the new foreign policy chief with a much bigger staff than the outgoing Javier Solana had, makes climate diplomacy a top priority; and that the newly created directorate-general for climate action gets resources worthy of its task.
But it is at least equally important that the EU becomes much more confident about the influence that its climate legislation has around the globe. And it should be proud of this and strengthen its lead – otherwise Asia will take over and determine the pace of standard-setting, and thus technological development, a situation I suspect not many Europeans would like to be in.
There is already too much navel-gazing in Brussels. Yes, Copenhagen was something of an embarrassment, but the EU should look beyond that, and vigorously pursue its role of standard-setter. In fact it may have more influence by doing that than any piece of paper that might have come out of Copenhagen.