Monday, November 16, 2009

The Next President

On Thursday at a dinner in Brussels European leaders will decide who will occupy two key positions in the European Union - The President of the European Council and the odd sounding yet critically important High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Both are created as a result of the Lisbon Treaty, the new constitution for the EU which aims to make the EU more efficient and to enhance its role on the world stage. The job of managing this process, largely secretive and with not even a veneer of democracy, is in the hands of the Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, currently President of the European Union.

It will be a difficult meal. In part because no one is really sure what kind of role they would like the persons holding these two positions to take and in part because France and Germany are seeking to shape the outcome through sheer brute force. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, are said to have settled on the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy, as their candidate for President. He is clearly the current favourite and if the decision was to made over lunch today he would secure the support of most nations in the EU. But there appears to be growing resentment that France and Germany are “running the show” and this could lead other nations to support Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister.

Just a few weeks ago Blair was a front runner. But his support of the Iraq war, his alliance and close relationship with George W Bush and his smooth talking “spin” politics are all weighing against him. Angela Merkel in particular is against his appointment. There is also a concern that having a British person represent the EU when Britain itself is often ambivalent about many aspects of Europe and is not a member of the Eurozone would send unfortunate signals to other countries around the world. Blair wants the Presidency, but cannot be seen to be campaigning for it.

As for the "foreign minister" position, there is the possibility that David Miliband, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, could secure this position. Over the last month he has given a series of interviews and a detailed speech on Europe's place in the world. He said what many other European leaders wanted to hear. But over the last few days Miliband has ruled himself out. The BBC reports one official in Brussels as saying that his behaviour looks like a case of "political flirting". The more cynical see his behaviour as an attempt to position himself as the successor to Gordon Brown when Brown steps down, likely after the parliamentary elections in Britain, now widely expected in March 2010.

The Swedish Prime Minister is hoping to arrive at the dinner with just two names which he knows he has support for, but this is as much of a pipe dream as securing a binding climate change treaty in Copenhagen just a few days later. The “old firm” European countries and the newly arrived Eastern European members of the EU see the two positions in different ways, each requiring very different kinds of people. Poland has suggested that there be interviews and a selection committee. Germany has made clear that they do not want either position holders to consider themselves anything more than spokespersons for the EU – they are not policy makers. By the time desert arrives, it is likely that they will postpone a decision or chose candidates through so many compromises and side-deals that they devalue the positions themselves.

When George W Bush visited the EU in 2005 he famously said "You sure gotta lotta presidents in this Europe." That is part of the problem. While the EU wants to enhance its status in the world and saw these two positions as the vehicles by which this could be achieved, there are a lot of Presidents who want to secure the credit for being the voice of Europe. To complicate matters, The European Parliament voted in its own president, former Polish prime minister, Jerzy Buzek, in July. Earlier in the fall it gave its backing to Jose Manuel Barroso for a second term as commission president. Under Lisbon, the presidency of other councils (EcoFin, Agriculture, and Transport for example) continues to rotate every six months between member states, which will continue to seek some recognition and profile for their "presidencies". There is also the increasingly powerful presidency of the Eurogroup – the ministerial meetings of the Euro countries. George W Bush was likely more insightful than he could know.

Being a waiter at the dinner on Thursday would be an interesting position, and no doubt many journalists are practicing carrying trays and pouring wine. There will be a lot of talk and side conversations. Whether a decision will be made is anyone’s guess. It may be that, as someone remarked about Clement Atlee, “an empty taxi turned up at the dinner and the first President of the European Council got out”.

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