This was not Europe’s finest hour. After eight years of tortured labour, the mountain brought forth a mouse. Supporters of the European Union are dismayed, just as Eurosceptics are sneeringly exultant. Both camps should have little trouble agreeing this was a colossal failure of ambition.

It did not need to be this way. Nor is it to disparage the qualities of Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian prime minister, or Lady Ashton, the EU trade commissioner, to say they are not the obvious answer to the Lisbon treaty’s search for ways Europe can punch its weight, through the new offices of a permanent president of the council and a newly empowered foreign policy chief.

They ticked all the boxes all right – balance between left and right, north and south, male and female and so on – but these are by no means the only boxes.

Lisbon was supposed to herald a new dispensation. Implicit in this fresh start was the assumption that the union needed not only to function more efficiently internally but to project power externally – a geopolitical role more commensurate with its economic power.

That surely meant that the unwritten rules on parcelling out jobs had to make way for new criteria – such as picking the best people for the jobs. That seems to be far too revolutionary. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister and former prime minister who would have been a plausible candidate for either position, was quite right to describe this lost opportunity as minimalism.

Let us be clear. To say this does not mean that failing to call on Tony Blair – a divisive figure with an ambiguous practical as opposed to declaratory record on Europe – was the missed opportunity.

There were many well-qualified potential candidates – such as Pascal Lamy, Christine Lagarde and Lord Patten – who were simply not considered.

By lasering in on the lowest common denominator in this way, leaders of the big member-states – wherever they formally line up in the spectrum between intergovernmentalism and federalism – are united in their unwillingness to be overshadowed by figures of calibre and clout. They thus reveal themselves as geopolitical pygmies. But there is more. The political tribalism behind this share-out reveals that under Lisbon the European parliament has assumed more power than the national capitals may have bargained for.

From the UK’s point of view, defining the national interest in the pinched way Gordon Brown did is disappointingly myopic. It is in Britain’s and the EU’s interest that the UK adds value at the heart of Europe. Lady Ashton now has arguably the more important of the two new jobs, backed by money and assets. We hope to be surprised by how well she does it.

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