WASHINGTON—Last week’s summit of the European Union in Brussels was meant to save the 50-year-old institution from the ire of many of its citizens, exemplified by the defeat of the proposed European constitution in France and the Netherlands two years ago. Instead, it looked more like a summit of the South American Common Market, confirming the poverty of vision at the helm of the world’s largest political and economic bloc.

For the last two years, the consensus on the failure of the proposed European constitution was that citizens see the EU as an elitist construction. And what did the elites do last week? They preserved the bulk of the labyrinthine constitution they were supposed to scrap, but they will now call it a “treaty,” making it easy for governments to avoid putting the issue to a vote.

I hasten to add that the people don’t always have better ideas than the governing elites. If they had a choice, many of those who have been expressing anger at the EU would probably replace it with far more retrograde institutions designed to reflect their fears of the modern period. But that’s not the point. Behaving precisely in the way that, according to many polls, makes half the population of the EU resentful of their institutions will not restore the “Eurocracy’s” sex appeal.

Window-dressing the European constitution is the symptom of a deeper problem—the lack of vision regarding the role the continent should play in today’s increasingly open world. The most important battle of the summit was a beastly squabble fought by Poland and Germany over a change in the voting rules.

Why were the Kaczynski twins (President Lech and Prime Minister Jaroslaw) who run Poland so desperate to maintain the status quo, other than the obvious reason that the rules gave Poland almost as much say in the EU’s decision-making process as Germany, which has double the population? Because between now and 2013, Poland will receive about 70 billion euros from other member states. By preserving the old rules, Poland could continue to milk the Brussels cow through the 2013-19 budget. In the end, Poland got what it wanted: The new voting rules will not come into existence before 2014. So the summit that was supposed to define the European profile for the current century turned into a bar brawl to see who gets to plunder more of the people’s money.

This was also supposed to be the event in which the new generation of leaders shed the protectionist ways of Europe, turning the awkward pachyderm into a nimble feline capable of outrunning the United States and Asia. Fat chance! French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “feat” was to persuade his colleagues to drop “free and undistorted competition” as one of the aims of the treaty. In case anyone takes this to mean that Sarkozy wants to get rid of antitrust bodies that often undermine successful companies by accusing them of monopoly activity, the president explained that he believes in “promoting national champions”—i.e., pouring corporate welfare into industries that the government wants to boost.

The EU leaders also preserved a charter of “fundamental rights” that is simply a laundry list of interventionist policies largely responsible for the fact that Europe’s unemployment rate is nearly double that of the United States. The guy with a sensible position on this issue—outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair—had to secure an opt-out clause to make sure his country is not flooded with legal challenges to its labor laws through the European Court of Justice.

One wonders how hard Europe needs to be hit before a generation of leaders will wake up to the challenge. Perhaps the problem is that many European businesses have modernized themselves in spite of the restrictive environment and become great global players, making it less obvious that reform is urgently needed—30 percent of the 2,000 most successful companies in the world are European, although in specific areas such as high tech or life sciences the proportion is much smaller.

And even though the European economy has grown little in recent years, there is still enough accumulated capital to continue subsidizing large chunks of society (nearly half the European budget goes to protect farmers). The result is the kind of complacency that turns historic summits into mediocre conformity. Old Europe is not getting any younger and, if things continue like this, new Europe will age fast.