THE European Union's (EU's) uncertain and meandering ways since embarking on a new constitution with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty raises the question of whether it will in future be taken seriously as the global player it so dearly wishes to be.

Will there from now on be a new, politically strong and virile EU competing in the big league of international politics?

Greater relevance was indeed a major motivation behind Lisbon and the appointment of two new top-level functionaries.

Unfortunately, the way the European leaders went about it leaves the impression that a great opportunity has been missed. My guess is that we will probably see more of the same in future. The image of the EU as an economic giant and a political pygmy will persist.

But at least there is a small consolation: Henry Kissinger's well-known despair about who to telephone should one wish to talk to the EU has finally been resolved. A "President of Europe" has been installed.

A feeble technocratic incumbent and a low-profile political role is what the majority of the member states seem to prefer. Not to be "governed by Brussels" has become the mantra in many European capitals. The feeling is that the EU has already usurped too much of member states' national sovereignty, that the erosion must stop and the mandarins in Brussels must be cut down to size. This explains the long and agonising process to get the Lisbon Treaty adopted and ratified.

The essential conditions on which the new treaty was based were clear and simple: no federal Europe, no more power to Brussels and the protection of national sovereignty against Brussels's usurpation.

And this is the way it happened. The appointment of unknown, grey personalities Herman van Rompuy (former Belgian prime minister) and Catherine Ashton (former European commissioner for trade) as president of the EU Council of Ministers and high representative for common foreign and security policy, respectively, was calculated and intentional.

The job description profiled the new EU president as somebody who must come from a small member state, preferably one of the Benelux three, and that the new incumbent must not rock the boat. This set the parameters for the decision of the European Council (the assembly of heads of state or government of member states) during a brief meeting last month to confirm advance horse-trading among the main power brokers - France, Germany and the UK.

So, in the end, 500-million Europeans got a president they did not vote for and, in many cases, probably did not even know. A cynical voice from Whitehall described these two new functionaries as "nothing more than garden gnomes". An outrageous remark, one would say, but it epitomises the deep resentment from some quarters at the way European leaders have deliberately pre- empted the EU's supranational future role in favour of state-centrism.

The fact that Van Rompuy was chosen ahead of former British prime minister Tony Blair, a political heavyweight, confirms their vision for the post-Lisbon EU: subservient, compliant and manageable. For this reason Blair was not appointed. They did not want a strong leader who would have been taken seriously. Blair would have been able to stand up against the likes of France's Nicolas Sarkozy or Germany's Angela Merkel, "stop the traffic" in Washington and Beijing (as British Foreign Secretary David Milliband remarked), stand his ground against the major powers, notably the US and China, and raise the EU's profile in global political as well as economic agenda setting.

This was also the main reason for the earlier appointment of Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission, for a second five-year term. He can also now relax. He will not be eclipsed by the new "President of Europe" and has nothing to fear from Ashton, a diplomatic novice. Her most important role will be to create a more unified EU stance on the foreign policy issues on which member states do not see eye to eye and to give the EU a recognisable single voice in world affairs.

However, while a common EU foreign and security policy is still undefined future music, member states' foreign ministers will continue to run the show. Hardly any fireworks can be expected from Ashton. For starters, she will find it difficult to fill the boots of her predecessor, the respected and seasoned diplomat, Spain's Javier Solana.

So, what we will likely see is that the major international role players - the US, China, Russia, Japan, Brazil and India - will not accord Brussels the same deference as Paris, Berlin and London. In the global pecking order, the EU position will hardly improve with the new president and foreign minister now in place.

Thus, a golden opportunity to put the EU in a league commensurable with what it intrinsically represents - 27 member states, a single economic market of 500-million people, the strongest economic bloc in the world, boasting a common currency stronger than the dollar - was deliberately blocked by myopic and egocentric nationalists.

The conclusion is quite clear. After Lisbon, the successful regional integration process in Europe, which started 50 years ago, has been stalled, probably even reversed. An experiment that promised to lead to a new international order has been rendered moribund as a result of resurgent nationalism in Europe.

From its inception after the Second World War, the EU was intended to put an end to nationalist intolerance and conflict and, for 50 years, it was successful. This gave hope that a viable alternative has been found to supersede the dangerously dysfunctional nation-state system. But after the Lisbon Treaty it is clear that the postmodern "United States of Europe" is not to be.

Multilateralism, a viable replacement for the old order, has been marginalised, and narrow-minded, self-serving nationalism is being rekindled. And who knows? Aggressive nationalism, the aberration that caused so much harm and devastation in past centuries, might again raise its ugly head in Europe.

The harbingers are already out there for everybody to see: the reluctance to admit an Islamic Turkey as an EU member, racial xenophobia in many EU member states, ascendancy of right-wing political parties in various European countries, and intolerant immigration policies.

Right-wing policy agendas and petty self- interest are gaining greater legitimacy, even respectability and support, because of the short-sighted atavism of the present generation of European leaders.

This time around, unfortunately, there is no Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle or Robert Schuman to lead the way to a better future, as they did so admirably after the Second Word War.

It is the next election, rather than Europe's future, that counts for the present generation's incumbents. Under such leadership, unfortunately, it is back to the past.

- Prof Olivier is a former South African ambassador and is currently director of the Centre for African and European Studies at the University of Johannesburg.