Europe needs a president we can all trust. Blair is not the man for the job
The ultimate test of Mr Blair's readiness for the new president's post should be his ability to fulfil the ambitions that created it
The Observer, Sunday 25 October 2009
There is something peculiar about the job of the permanent president of the European Council. It is prestigious enough that Tony Blair wants it, important enough that the Conservatives are desperate to stop him, but few of us actually know what it is.
That is partly because the job does not yet exist. It is a provision of the Lisbon treaty that awaits a signature from the Czech president before it can take effect. But there is a broader problem. The new presidency's function relates to EU institutions that are generally reviled or ignored in this country, but rarely understood.
The new president's task, as mandated by Lisbon, is to provide continuity and ambition to the European agenda. The point of the Lisbon process was to fix the EU's decision-making process so member states could get on and make some useful decisions in areas that even sceptics agree require co-ordinated continental action: the environment, energy supply, financial stability, security.
The hope among pro-Europeans is that the EU might then, by its good works, earn some legitimacy and even affection among sceptical citizens. So where might Mr Blair fit in to this plan?
Currently, each meeting of European heads of government has its agenda set by whichever state holds a rotating presidency. Business stops and starts anew every six months. The new fixed-term president will, in theory, set a clearer strategic agenda, persuade member states to sign up to it and sell its benefits across Europe.
What the job emphatically is not is a "president of Europe" with executive power – a kind of Brussels-based equivalent to Barack Obama in Washington and Hu Jintao in Beijing.
Mr Blair would not preside in some lordly capacity over the peoples of Europe. Technically, he would simply steer meetings of the European Council, the EU's main decision-making body comprised of heads of governments. A more accurate title for the job might be "chairman of European Summits".
Of course, if all the job involved was wielding a gavel, Mr Blair wouldn't be interested. But, as everyone involved in the selection acknowledges, there is sufficient ambiguity in the Lisbon criteria for an incumbent to shape the job in his or her own image. Mr Blair would, by the sheer fact of his celebrity, transform the presidency into a symbolic and influential office. So his candidacy poses a challenge to the EU to decide what it wants from the role.
It doesn't help that the recruitment process is so opaque. Candidacies are not declared but are muttered about in huddles of European diplomats. It all makes a mockery of the original plan for a treaty that would usher in a more democratic and accountable era of EU decision-making.
The choice will ultimately be made by heads of government in the European Council. But by then, the process will already have conformed to the sceptics' caricature of a cabalistic stitch-up by arrogant elites. For that process to result in the elevation of a figure as controversial as Tony Blair is, to say the least, risky.
That should not automatically disqualify him. Liked or loathed, the former British prime minister would certainly command Europeans' attention. His presidency would signal a seriousness of intent for the post-Lisbon era. And his powers under the treaty would be limited to brokering agreement on what should be the agenda for EU negotiations, not deciding their outcome.
Mr Blair is, without doubt, an accomplished diplomat, negotiator and communicator. He has a loyal fan base in the US and he speaks French – no small consideration in Brussels. It is plausible he would bring a level of conviction and effective advocacy on behalf of the European idea that has been sorely lacking for at least a generation.
In Britain, that is especially true. Voters clearly struggle to feel any warmth towards Brussels-based institutions. That is a big consideration given the likelihood of an anti-EU Conservative government soon being formed in Westminster. There might be a mutual strategic advantage for the UK and the rest of Europe in having a Briton as European Council president, engaging one the EU's most powerful and most ambivalent members in the project as never before. The opposite might also be true. In prospect is David Cameron stubbornly demanding symbolic "repatriation" of powers from a European Council chaired by Tony Blair. That could test Britain's relationship with the EU to breaking point.
There lies the problem with Mr Blair's candidacy – his capacity to provoke. His career in national politics involved many successes, but it was also characterised by bitter divisions, especially over foreign policy. That is a curious recommendation for a job that requires international consensus-building.
Across Europe, Mr Blair is remembered for his alliance with George W Bush and support for an ultimately disastrous military adventure in Iraq. In Britain, that feeling is especially raw. Mr Blair has undeniable powers of persuasion, but their misuse to sell the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has not been forgotten. Many in Britain will not forgive Mr Blair for appearing to subordinate the national interest to a militaristic doctrine formulated in Washington. Many also believe he made such a commitment to Mr Bush in secret long before he shared it with the British public.
Then there was the venomous diplomacy that surrounded attempts to get UN Security Council approval for the Iraq invasion. Such memories divide Europe as much as Mr Blair's debating fluency could ever unite it.
The basic problem is one of trust. Mr Blair has a proven record of ignoring constitutional niceties and subverting international institutions to pursue an agenda defined by self-belief alone. To entrust such a person with the task of setting the EU agenda and to expect that agenda to be embraced across the continent is simply not realistic.
The ultimate test of Mr Blair's readiness for the new president's post should be his ability to fulfil the ambitions that created it. The process that, via a botched constitution, led to the current Lisbon treaty, was supposed to achieve two things: reform EU institutions and legitimise them for disaffected European citizens. That journey, with its numerous revisions, compromises and bitterly contested referendums, is now nearly complete. The reforming ambition can be declared a partial success; as a project to restore legitimacy, it is an abject failure.
The EU is now less trusted than ever before. Fixing that problem is one of the first tasks that a permanent president of the European Council will face. It is not a task that Tony Blair is best qualified to perform.