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.
Of 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.