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.