The two main challenges that Europe faced in 2011 have deeply changed the profile of the Union as we have known thus far.
Both the war in Libya and the economic crisis show that, in spite of the Lisbon treaty and all the political innovation to strengthen the role of the European institutions, the Union is still a very weak actor versus the nation-states.
On both issues the European Parliament and the European Commission have been sidelined and were not able to play an active role.
During the Libya uprising, Britain and France were the strongest and most vocal supporters of the military intervention, while the European Union as a whole was unable to unite with one voice. That was one of the first chances for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Lady Catherine Ashton, to define the role and play a major part in an international crisis: much and more than the appointment of ambassadors around the world, a strong political position in that occasion would have given to the High Representative recognition and power. She failed and let the national states pursue their own policies.
Even more evident the absence of any role for the Union in dealing with the consequences of the financial crisis: Germany and France have been the main actors in this show and bi-lateral meetings between Merkel and Sarkozy more important and decisive than formal meetings of the European Council. The new treaty imposing new fiscal rules and budget constraints has been drafted by the national government without any involvement of the Commission, and the European Parliament will have no voice in the process of adoption.
Since its foundation, as European Community, the Union has always been a balance between two different approaches, the supranational and the intergovernmental. The first one incarnates the ideas of Jean Monnet and Altiero Spinelli for a strong central European core and produced the European Commission, the directly elected European Parliament and the Court of Justice, while the second one, supported by Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, wants to guarantee the role of national governments in all European matters.
The first vision, however, can be credited for all the major achievements that the Union has reached, from the unification of the internal markets to the enlargement, since the supranational European core has been able to defeat narrow national visions and the pure defence of national interest pursued by member states.
The year 2011 clearly put an end to the balance between those two different visions and gave back power to the national states. This, more than any British veto or Greek bailout, is a threat to the future of the Union.
In this contest, and with increasingly weak role for the institutions promoting the European project, we will see more national vetoes and more low-profile agreements.
With European supranational institutions marginalized and the power imbalance between member states and European Institutions, it is very difficult to see a bright future for the Union.