Tag Archives: EU president

And now, for my next trick…

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

To many people, the European Union is a fantasyland whose very existence and enduring success defy logic. It’s like an old magic trick that continues to captivate audiences, even though everyone’s seen it many times before. But the EU does what all good tricks do: It encourages onlookers to suspend their disbelief and look at the bigger picture rather than the details.

This unique quality was underlined on January 1, when Spain, a country whose economy is disintegrating, took over the presidency of the 27-nation bloc in the middle of a staggering financial crisis with the promise that it would lead the EU to recovery. The spell which the EU has cast over its audience was highlighted by the fact that hardly anyone batted an eyelid at the incongruousness of this situation.

A number of years ago, a Nigerian general whose army had just invaded another African nation appeared live on the BBC World Service to declare that his soldiers had “brought democracy” to the country in question. “That’s great, will you now bring it to Nigeria as well?” was the sharp response from the radio presenter.

Something similar comes to mind when reading the message posted on the official website of the Spanish EU presidency. The country’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero says Spain’s main challenge will be to help Europe build an economy that is “more productive, innovative and sustainable.” But surely if the Spaniards knew how to do that, they would already be applying it to their own economy.

While we in Greece are caught up in our own economic crisis, it’s easy to overlook the dramas being played out in other EU countries, such as Spain. The country’s public deficit for 2009 exceeded 70 billion euros – five times as much as the previous year – to stand at 6.79 percent of gross domestic product. It’s still only about half of Greece’s but nevertheless up 1.2 percent on the 2008 figure.

And like Greece, Spain recently had its credit rating downgraded. Standard and Poor’s lowered the country’s rating from “stable” to “negative” and warned that it faced a prolonged period of sluggish economic growth. But Spain’s most dramatic problem, and an area where even Greece’s disaster of an economy cannot match it yet, is unemployment. The jobless rate stood at almost 20 percent at the end of last year, which is the second-highest in the EU after Latvia. Incredibly for Europe’s fifth-largest economy, unemployment among Spaniards aged 16-24 has reached 42 percent.

All this makes Spain’s task of providing leadership on economic recovery seem far beyond its capability, while its promises of guiding the EU onto the path of financial security ring hollow. Zapatero’s announcement on December 30 that he was introducing a package of measures to help ailing farmers in his own country will have been of interest to our prime minister, George Papandreou — who faces the threat of farmers blocking highways this month — but is unlikely to have convinced Europe’s economic giants that Spain has creative answers to the Union’s economic dilemmas.

In fact, Spain’s challenge is even more complex than it first appears. During its presidency, the Union needs to agree on a replacement for the bloc’s long-term growth strategy, known as the Lisbon Agenda. The plan was meant have made the EU the world’s most competitive economy by this year. It has patently failed and a new 10-year plan, known as the 2020 strategy, is likely to be adopted at an EU leaders’ summit in March.

Before then, on February 11, the EU will hold a special summit on the economy, when Greece’s crisis and the danger it poses to the euro will be at the forefront of discussions. It’s then that Zapatero and his government will truly be tested, since, beyond having to solve economic riddles at a time of extreme turbulence, Spain will have to deal with an institutional conundrum as well. Its presidency is the first since the Lisbon Treaty took effect last month, creating the posts of President of the European Council, which has gone to former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, and Foreign Policy Chief, which is being filled by British politician Catherine Ashton.

Normally, Zapatero, who is experiencing his toughest year since taking office in 2004, would be looking forward to taking over the EU presidency, as it gives him the opportunity to boost his plummeting popularity at home and cultivate his image of being Europe’s Barack Obama – a title several of his EU colleagues, including Papandreou, have staked a claim to. But the fact that he and his foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, now have to tread a fine line between asserting Spain’s will on the EU and conceding ground to Van Rompuy and Ashton, means the Iberians could lose more than they will gain over the next six months.

Moratinos has pledged that Spain will fulfil its role with “modesty and discretion” but it already appears that Madrid is determined to shape events over the next six months according to its aims and needs. For instance, the Zapatero government has already organized seven summits between the EU and international partners, most of which have a clear relevance to Spanish interests: North Africa (Morocco on March 7-8 and Egypt on June 5), Central and South America (Mexico on May 15-16 and Latin American and Caribbean countries May 18-19) and with Mediterranean countries on June 7.

By using its unique position in the world to bridge the gap between Europe and other regions, Spain is in a sense augmenting the rotating presidency and underlining the value of having different member states set the EU agenda. However, the new institutional setup means Madrid may have set itself on a collision course with the EU’s supremos.

Although Van Rompuy is meant to represent the EU in international meetings at head-of-state or government level, all the summits mentioned earlier will be held in Spain, so Zapatero will undoubtedly want to play a significant role. Likewise, Moratinos has organized an informal meeting of foreign ministers in Cordoba on March 5-6 even though foreign policy is now Ashton’s responsibility.

Furthermore, despite the introduction of an EU president and foreign policy chief, the country holding the rotating presidency still retains significant influence: It continues to chair the weekly meetings of EU ambassadors, when the groundwork for many policies is carried out, and it presides over many committees that prepare Union initiatives in a range of fields.

If the EU magic trick is to continue wowing audiences and not to be exposed as a cheap stunt, Zapatero will need to display immense skill to ensure that Spain’s role dovetails with those of Van Rompuy and Ashton. Managing this while also reviving his country’s economy and getting 27 member states to agree on a common strategy for future growth requires a sleight of hand that seems too incredible even for the fantastic world of the European Union.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on January 8, 2010.

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The ditch Blair project

Tony_blair_witch Project_a.jpg

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Tony Blair must be getting used to rejection by now. He left office in 2007 unloved and unwanted after 10 years as British prime minister. His attempt to win back some respectability as an international statesman by becoming a Middle East envoy has been a damp squib. And now his voyage to become the Europe’s first president appears to have foundered on the EU’s perennial rock of uncertainty.

In hushed tones and behind closed doors, European leaders last week seemed to reject the idea of Blair being appointed president of the European Council, a position created by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all 27 EU member states.

Blair has some characteristics that would make him a suitable candidate for the role (charisma, valuable political experience, good communication skills, the ability to lead and diplomatic presence) but for many these are outweighed by the baggage he would bring with him (the Iraq War, his close ties to George W. Bush, his unpopularity in his own country, a pending investigation into whether he lied to his people and parliament and a fraught relationship with the EU in the past).

The fallout from the Iraq War is the biggest elephant in the room blocking Blair’s path to the presidency. The decision to hitch his wagon to George W. Bush’s lone star is something Europeans cannot overlook easily. But given the chance, Blair would probably explain that as the British prime minister, he had to make a decision – a very wrong one as it turned out – about whether to take part in a war. Had he been the prime minister of Belgium or Luxembourg, for example, perhaps his toughest foreign policy choice would have been what color bunting to get out when dignitaries visit from abroad.

Blair might even argue that having been through such a maelstrom and suffered the political consequences of his choices, he has the ideal experience to now be a unifying rather than a divisive figure. But even this does not dispel the dark cloud of mendacity that hangs over him. The Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s participation in the Iraq War will hopefully establish beyond doubt what Blair knew and what he told MPs and the public before committing troops to that conflict. The fact he’s due to face such an investigation appears to undermine his bid to become EU president. To risk having the first person in such a high-profile role publicly exposed as a liar would damage the Union. Of course, there would be more than a hint of hypocrisy in the air if he is rejected on this basis alone: Few of the 27 leaders who decide who fills the role are paragons of virtue themselves – any group that has Silvio Berlusconi as one of its most prominent decision-makers can hardly claim the moral high ground.

Perhaps that’s why some of them decided to suddenly create new criteria for any presidential candidate: his country would have to be a member of the eurozone and part of the Schengen Agreement – Britain is neither. If the EU’s aim is to appoint the best person for the job, then this shifting of the goalposts is preposterous. Theoretically, the EU president should be someone that’s transnational, not national, federal, not feudal. If he or she subscribes to the European project, then their homeland’s policy should be irrelevant.

10_okOf course, Blair’s critics would argue that he’s always been at loggerheads with the Union, typified by his stance in 2003 in the buildup to the Iraq War, which was widely interpreted as an effort to split the bloc. However, Blair has engaged with the EU in more constructive ways as well. One of his first acts after being voted into power in 1997 was to abolish Britain’s opt-out of the Maastricht Treaty’s Social Protocol. He was also one of the proponents in 1998 of giving the EU a role in defense policy and was a champion of the bloc’s enlargement. He was the first British prime minister to put the UK’s budget rebate up for discussion in 2005, when he urged member states to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and cut the extensive waste and laziness that it leads to, as we are well aware of in Greece.

In June of that year, Blair stood before the members of the European Parliament and set out a vision for a less bureaucratic, more liberal and modern Europe. “The people of Europe are speaking to us,” he said of citizens’ waning interest in the EU. “They are posing the questions. They want our leadership. It is time we gave it to them.” More than four years on, that leadership is still absent and, as the turnout in June’s European Parliament elections indicated, interest in the EU is flimsy. These are issues that, theoretically, a European president could address.

The role has been created so that someone can preside over the European Council – the regular summits between the 27 heads of government – and coordinate its work. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the president should also “ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy.”

Yet, what we have seen over the last couple of weeks is a climb down from this position. The message from Brussels last week was that it would be preferable for the president to come from one of the smaller member states, that he or she should be able to strengthen Europe from within, not necessarily give it a presence on the world stage, and be willing to play second fiddle to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the 27 leaders.

“There is an argument that a political star as a president of the EU would lead to trouble with the president of the Commission and other leaders,” Robert Goebbels, the Luxembourg MEP who has launched a petition to stop Blair from being considered for the job, told Athens Plus.

It would be one of the EU’s more quixotic moments should it create an opening for a figurehead who could use diplomatic and communication skills to promote the Union to an increasingly apathetic public and give it a greater presence on the global stage only to then shackle him or her for fear of upsetting internal balances.

As the Dutch daily De Volkskrant put it in a recent headline: “Europe chooses: chief or messenger boy.” Given some of the names that have been mentioned as alternatives to Blair – Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Tapio Lipponen, former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga – it seems the EU has decided there are too many indians to have a chief.

Presumably some of these politicians, if not all, are who The Economist had in mind when it referred to “the usual Europygmies.” Maybe, it’s a harsh assessment of men and women who are capable politicians in their domains, although hardly singular figures, but it underlines the challenge the EU now faces in trying to select someone to fulfill a role whose purpose remains unclear and undefined.

At least something is much clearer now: rejecting Blair was the easy part, too easy perhaps.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 6, 2009.