Another Blair Project? (After Number 10, Middle East Quartet, JP Morgan…)
Parts of the Anglophone press have it already summed up: “European leaders need a president, not a nonentity,” says Philip Stevens in yesterday’s Financial Times. After gently trashing a few very competent, but lesser known (at least in the English-speaking world) continentals, and recounting the virtues of a certain former British prime minister still prominent on the world scene, he concludes:
A new president, even one of substance, will struggle to forge a common European foreign policy. Collisions of historical experience, geography, instinct and, often, national interests are still significant. But if Europe wants a say in shaping a new world order it has to acquire the habit sometime. This is not the moment for faceless competence.
That former PM is, of course, Tony Blair, whose name is often brought forward as a potential candidate for “President of Europe,” or, to be more precise, the yet-to-be-ratified Lisbon Treaty’s to-be-defined position of President of the European Council.
“President,” in French, is the title of Nicolas Sarkozy, who is the top dog in France. But it is also how people around a conference table refer to the person presiding, i.e., “chairman” in English. And that is the key to the question of who gets to fill this job. The (as-yet-unratified) Treaty of Lisbon says very little about the role of the future president, other than “presiding” over and “preparation” for meetings, and “reporting” to the European Parliament – all of which reads like a job for a high-powered… chairman.
Except for this – again, undefined – aspect: “The President of the European Council will represent the European Union in matters of foreign and security policy.” Sounds very impressive, but it is immediately caveatted by mention of another new position, that of the “High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy,” or, in shorthand parlance, the future EU “Foreign Minister.” The President is to represent the EU abroad, but “without prejudicing” the authority of the Foreign Minister. So poor Henry Kissinger – “If I want to call Europe, who do I call?” – will still be confronted with a multiplicity of phone numbers.
Thus our leaders must eschew petty internal squabbles and opt for a candidate who has authority, is widely recognised (if not universally respected), and, crucially, is too proud and too ambitious to hang around for long in a post deprived of any real authority by national capitals. All of which points to the rational solution of appointing Tony Blair.
Pride and ambition he apparently has, but are such attributes enough to override what Menon and Stevens dismiss as “European theology?”
- that a European Council President should hail from the Eurozone (Blair’s UK still has its Pound Sterling);
- that the first president should hail from a committed EU country, not one that prides itself on Euro-skepticism;
- that Blair, with his “Bush Poodle” reputation after Iraq, is more Transatlantic than Cross-Channel?
Brits who live on the European continent tend to see these objections to a Blair candidacy, despite initial enthusiasm by backers such as France’s Sarkozy, as the kiss of death for his pretensions to fill the post. So who might have a serious crack at being the first Mr. Europe?
Mr. Eurozone, From the Economic Heart of Europe?
Though he comes from one of the EU’s smallest countries, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker is often cited as a serious “candidate” (though he’s nothing of the sort at present, since he’s busy running his government as both Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, as well as presiding over the Eurozone group). Luxembourg – no longer the EU’s smallest country now that Malta is a member – is actually the birthplace of the Union, and Luxembourg is a founding member (as is the case for its membership in NATO) and host to key EU institutions.
Juncker is a somewhat self-effacing, no-nonsense (he has a biting sense of humor), multilingual (fluent German, French, and English) leader. At thirteen years in power, he is the longest-serving head of government in the European Union. He is widely respected in international circles, and though a Christian Democrat, he has headed coalitions with Socialists as well as Liberals. Some continental socialists feel more in common with Juncker than their ostensible ideological New Labour cousin Blair.
Now that we’ve established that Juncker is by no means “faceless” nor a “nonentity,” we can return to the thorny item of the European Council President’s job description. Will 27 hard-charging, elected-by-their-citizenry, prime ministers and heads of state want a “proud and ambitious” Blair (or anyone else from Europe’s “Big Three”) at the head of the table? Who is looking at his watch wondering when the Quartet is going to beckon, or looking at his payslip and thinking that he could do better back at JP Morgan? (See the 16 March Observer for Andrew Rawnsley’s excellent “global butterfly” Blair analysis). Will Blair accept a job that could very well be a glorified chairman, gaveling meetings to order and preparing the Minutes for the EU Parliament?
Those who argue that a high profile, charismatic first president might quickly transform the job into Europe’s point man with world leaders are not factoring in who is in charge. The European Council is the EU’s forum for national leaders, and the Sarkozies, the Browns, and the Merkels of Europe may in fact feel more relaxed with a chair (President, sorry) from a small country like Luxembourg who nevertheless brings extensive European experience to the table.
Juncker’s economic expertise, at this crucial juncture for the Euro, the Dollar, and the world economy, may be his trump card. Whatever the outcome of the US presidential elections, the United States will need a no-nonsense interlocutor in Europe, if the West is to pull itself out of the current dangerous impasse. Who better than a seasoned consensus builder, who – not about to outshine anyone in terms of star power – can labor away at compromises that have to include an ever widening circle?
Europe’s choices are not limited to Blair and Juncker, but my money is on the Chairman of Europe.
(Avuncular American, 14 March 2008. Full disclosure: Gerald Loftus, as the then US Chargé d’Affaires in Luxembourg, was sometimes seen having a beer with PM Juncker at diplomatic receptions circa 2001. He’s never had tea with Tony Blair).