Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Both the Best and Worst Man for the Job

Now that the Irish have passed the Lisbon Treaty and it’s set to be ratified within months, the British press has transferred its characteristically ferocious obsession to what the treaty will do. And to hear them tell it, the sole purpose of this document is to make Tony Blair the “President of Europe”. Of course that is not true, and in reality no such position is being created. The position being referred to is the President of the European Council, which has always existed but will now go to a person rather than to a country (Sweden currently holds the presidency). The position doesn’t come imbued with much specific power like an American president, it's more of a symbolic coordinator role like the Secretary General of the United Nations.

But though it doesn’t come with executive power, the intention of the position – to designate a high-profile figure who can speak with one voice for all of the EU - is ambitious. Right now, the member state holding the Council presidency is unable to do that because they can essentially only speak for themselves, and they don’t have much time to develop a cohesive presentation of EU objectives given that they only hold the position for six months. So having an actual person in place for a longer term will make a big difference, although he is essentially "working for" the 27 European heads of government that make up the Council, not the other way around. He can only speak when he's been given permission by the entire council, a position he may find frustrating since he is used to the unilateral system of Westminster government.

The de facto “leader” of the EU up till now has been the president of the European Commission, a position currently held by Jose Manuel Barroso. But given that the Commission (made up of independent commissioners) and the Council (made up of the prime ministers of each member state) are often in conflict, Barrosso has never been able to convincingly speak for all of the EU even when he’s sitting in as its representative in bodies such as the G8. The Commission has no control over member states’ foreign or military policy. Of course the President of the European Council won't be able to unilaterally make foreign policy decisions (and nether can the new position of EU High Representative on Foreign Policy). The president is subject to the prime ministers of the member states, but he can work to attain a consensus amongst them and then announce and coordinate that policy (much in the same way Switzerland's executive branch works).

So the new presidency position calls for someone who has talents in two distinct areas: he or she needs to know how to work a room and twist arms in order to reach group consensus, and they need to be a high-profile, charismatic figure who can represent the EU on the world stage. Obviously, Tony Blair meets both of these requirements.

The problem is he also has one giant albatross hanging around his neck: Iraq. The fact that he was prime minister when the UK followed the US in its war with Iraq hasn’t endeared him to the British public or to Europeans in general. The centre-left of Europe is deeply mistrustful of Blair because of his role in the war, and this is a stigma he is never likely to live down. And in the UK, as has been evidenced by the vitriolic reaction by the British press to the likelihood of his presidency, Blair is still widely reviled by both the left and the right. The right hates him because he presided over the humiliating defeat of the Tories and pushed for a marginal social democratic agenda, the left hates him because he acquiesced to American power, and because they feel betrayed by many of New Labour's policies and promises it did not fulfil. He’s also become an openly religious Catholic since leaving office, and that doesn’t exactly endear him to the secular left either in Britain or on the continent.

Given the painful divisions that emerged in Europe in 2003 over the Iraq War, and how those divisions exposed how weak and incoherent Europe still is in the area of foreign policy, picking someone as president who conjures up those memories may at first seem like something Europe would want to avoid. But the reality is there just isn’t any other logical choice – such is the dearth of high-profile, charismatic politicians in Europe. The runners-up? Jan Peter Balkenende of Holland, François Fillon of France, Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium and Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg. Not exactly household names.

Hated at Home

With this reality in mind I had long ago concluded that despite the Iraq problem Blair was probably the best pick. But in the past few days speaking with some of my friends here in the UK, I’m starting to get the full sense of how the wounds of the Iraq war have still not healed here. Even my most liberal friends have reacted with horror to the idea that Blair will assume the presidency, saying that after the British public and media worked so hard to push him to resign it would be an insult to see him appointed to an unelected position where he seems to be lording over them.

A recent survey showed that a majority of the British public (53%) is opposed to Blair becoming president. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that only 66% of Labour party members want him to get the job. At their party conference this week the Conservatives seem to be content to make a bogeyman out of Blair, with Boris Johnson saying Britain is faced with the prospect of Blair “suddenly pupating into an intergalactic spokesman for Europe”. The media has been almost salivating with hostility toward the idea as well, with the Telegraph newspaper actually referring to a proposed British referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in a headline yesterday as the “Stop Tony Blair Referendum”.

Certainly, these fears are misguided. Logically the Tories should be rooting for the first president of the council to be British – that would give the UK the influence in Brussels to be able to push through the EU reforms they claim they are so intent on achieving. Opposing Blair is certainly a case of the Tories cutting off their nose to spite their face, perhaps succumbing to mob-pleasing populism over sound policy.

But this isn’t just the usual British paranoia about the EU revealing its ugly head. There is a real feeling of ill will toward Tony Blair in this country, and I’m starting to wonder if its really worth it for Brussels to further antagonize the British, who are already so hostile to the EU. It’s a bizarre situation – Blair being president would undoubtedly be a good thing for the UK (the vast majority of respondents to that survey admitted as much), but he remains so controversial in his home country that the appointment would infuriate many in the UK – particularly the liberal left which the EU so badly needs in its corner.

Perhaps this initial discomfort with the choice of Blair will go away after a short while, and the British people eventually will come to remember what it was that inspired and enthused them about Blair in the first place. If that were the case Blair could actually serve as the ambassador for Brussels who could finally make the British like Europe, or at least make them finally accept that they need Europe. It was always a shame that the Iraq War intervened to derail Mr. Blair’s hopes of making Britain a fully active and contributory member of the EU. Perhaps this is the opportunity for him to finally see out that goal. It would be one failed promise that New Labour could belatedly deliver on.


Funmatien said...

I think it is still a bit early to say that he is going to be "EU President". The British media seem to suggest that there is no doubt about that. He is one of the most likely candidates, that is for sure. However, there are some important European Leaders, i.e. Angela Merkel, who were clearly opposed to Tony Blair in the past when the position of EU Commission President was to be filled. And there is little discussion on the job at the moment (at least is seems to me).

So let's wait until there is more certainty about the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the point in time it will come into force. Maybe it is true what the FT's Wolfgang Münchau wrote on www.eurointelligence.com (Daily News Briefing from Oct 5, 2009): The person who is an early candidate is not in a good position to get the job (an old EU politics rule in his view). Also he says that according to Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg, there was a consensus during the constitutional convention that the first EU Prsident should not come from a large member state.

Anonymous said...

I have always voted Labour but I am horrified at the idea of Tony Blair becoming EU President. He lied to us about Iraq, plain and simple. I can never trust him again after that, he is forever tainted for me. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

BlairSupporter said...

Your initial instincts on Tony Blair were right. He is the only (prospective) presidential candidate of sufficient calibre and international clout for ALL Europeans. And for Britain he might finally get us to sit up and notice the rest of Europe.

The British press are wrong. They are wrong on many counts and for many reasons.
1. The RIGHT, Daily Mail readers hate Blair because he is a winner and NOT one of them. His historic three election wins hurt their "right to govern" self-belief unforgivably.
2. The LEFT, Independent/Guardian readers were wrong on Iraq. Blair was right. For that they will never forgive him; i.e. for being right.
3. The recent poll you refer to also showed that 43% would LIKE Blair to be EU president. A move of a few points and he has a majority in favour.

And yet all we hear is that he is hated in Britain. Not true. He is not hated by the people, just the online 'liberal intelligentsia' who have never had to make a tougher decision than which Guardian article to comment on.

And of course he is feared by the Right who know this kind of return would shine a light on their nakedness in Europe and thus scupper their chances of winning the next British general election. They'd probaly prefer it if he came back to stand as the next British PM. Then, they think (and I think they are wrong) they might finally defeat him.

Angela Merkel is likely to support Blair partly because HER Germany now understands the threat from Middle East instability, and partly because the British Conservatives in the EU parliament have deserted and gone extremely right-wing. And no-one's noticed.

Sarkozy and France KNOW that there is a problem in the world that Obama is afraid to tackle, his outstretched hand is far too compromised.

The UNHCR passed last Friday an Egypt/US sponsored resolution BANNING Free Speech in case it upsets Muslims. And again, no-one's noticed.

I have high hopes that Mr Blair's diplomatic and political skills will help us deal with all of this and either push for UN reform or perhaps even for a new organisation altogether.

It comes to something when France is complaining about American "softness" on civil liberties. But they are. Such is the continuing love-in for Obama that no-one's noticed.

We need more troops in Afghanistan. Blair may be able to persuade other Europeans where so far Obama has had limited success. Europe is falling out of love with Obama and back in love with Blair. And few have noticed.

Some are even suggesting that Obama's delay in deciding on this troops increase/withdrawal is simple. He is awaiting Blair as new EU Council president to stiffen his backbone and to take any flak.

They may be right.

Blair is used to taking flak. Taking criticism doesn't mean he is wrong.

For all sorts of reasons Tony Blair is THE MAN the world needs right now.

For all of that the EU Council president's post would NOT give Blair GREAT POWERS as some fear-mongers suggest. He will represent ALL of the EU leaders, NOT instruct or lead them.

It DOES give him influence, though, and his travels and experience over the years have given him connections and a wide perspective.

Blair's the right one. In fact without him as EU President, perhaps we should all despair.

BlairSupporter said...

A little PS to the above.

You are being LIED to by my fellow Brits that the British public pushed Blair to resign.

He resigned because his party, and mainly a Gordon Brown cabal, thought Brown could do the job better and somehow take the party back to the Left.

This was never a possibility, but they were too dumb to realise this. They realise it NOW. But as with Blair's being correct on Iraq they will never admit that he was correct on policy direction too.

Brown, their erstwhile hero, was signed up to all, or at least most of it, and held the purse-strings tight as Finance Minister (and away from Blair) for ten years. Thus, any present economic fallout is Brown's not Blair's.

The cabal on the Left are annoyed with Blair over THIS too. It SHOULD be HIS fault, and not Brown's.

But the BIG missing element now in Britain is leadership. It went with Blair. And we ALL know it. Even those still in denial.

There is an online petition to Ban Blair-Baiting at the Iraq Inquiry. The press and many on the peace'n'love Left want to get Blair to the ICC over Iraq. They won't succeed, of course, since he did nothing illegal.

But your fair-minded readers might want to sign this, since even in Britain we are all innocent until proven guilty.

Unless the press tell us otherwise!

Ban Blair-Baiting petition:


Stan Rosenthal said...

Spot on, Blairsupporter.

Blair unpopular in Britain? 43% in favour of him being EU President looks pretty good to me bearing in mind the non-stop vitriolic media and blogging campaign against our former Prime Minister. And why the hell should these hacks and hackers be allowed to call the tune anyway!?!


PS Congratulations on a very well written article

Anonymous said...

Nice article, my fellow American.
What is that old saying? Your first choice is usually the right one? Don't go paddling against the current of your own Gulf Stream or we'll both end up with the Blues. Tony Blair is the right man for the job. President Obama has single-handedly weakened the U.S. in a matter of less than a year. Blairsupporter has pointed out Obama's signing of the nightmarish "stifling of freedom of expression" in regards to religion, especially a certain religion. America now needs to look outside for strength and to protect our freedoms. Isn't that pitiful? My German friend tells me the press is reporting Merkel is in favor of TB. We know Sarkozy is in favor. There are more and more conservatives in power and it is because we know the danger of radical Islamism. We know why we went into Iraq and that it was NOT wrong. The fight goes on and we need strong leaders and a strong military to be able to fend off the enemies that would have us give up our freedom of the press (that's you baby) and speech for something more to their liking. Sometimes these anti-Blair people start getting me down and it's a bad place to be, in with the muck of hatred, speculation and opinion. I refresh my memory by checking the facts, have a nice cup of coffee (not tea) and then my eyes clear up again. I'll keep checking in with you to see when you've come back to your original path. Come on!