The opening of national inquiries into the decisions that led the British and Dutch governments to support the US-led invasion in Iraq may be extremely relevant to this year’s race for top EU jobs, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV.
The role played by European politicians in the days leading up to the Iraq war may well influence the race for top EU jobs, set to begin in earnest this year, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The matter could become relevant, in particular regarding the choice of a new Commission president and, if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, the permanent EU president and the Union’s foreign policy chief.
Those potentially affected could include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, his then foreign minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who was then prime minister of Portugal.
The British government will decide before 23 February whether to open a Pandora’s box revealing the extent to which Blair is to be blamed for the decision to attack Iraq, which was wrongly suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.
Blair is widely seen as one of the strongest candidates to take the job of permanent EU president, a position created under the Lisbon Treaty, which still needs to be ratified by all EU member states. A few days ago, Alain Minc, a member of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s inner circle of advisors, told a public event that Sarkozy will back Blair’s nomination for the position.
Blair was widely criticised for backing former US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, despite failing to secure a second United Nations resolution on the stand-off. While still in office, Blair resisted demands to disclose information on decisions taken on the eve of the Iraq war.
In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has bowed to pressure from the Labour party, a member of his three-party coalition, following the publication in the press of several secret government memos. In these memos, civil servants warned the government, headed by Balkenende, about the slim legal basis for an invasion.
Balkenende was skilled enough to postpone the presentation of the special committee report until the end of October, meaning after the European elections, one source commented, before adding that even belatedly, the results of the inquiry may harm Balkenende’s presumed ambition of replacing José Manuel Barroso as Commission president.
Officially, Balkenende has denied interest in the position. But the investigation could harm Dutch candidates for other top EU positions, including current NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. A document, written by legal advisers at the Dutch foreign ministry, reportedly warned de Hoop Scheffer – who was the Dutch foreign minister at the time – that there was no proper legal basis for the country’s support of the invasion.
Scheffer is about to leave his NATO job and his name is being mooted for the position of the EU’s first foreign affairs chief.
Barroso’s chances compromised?
Current Commission President Barroso is increasingly unsure of his re-appointment, according to several sources. The main reason appears to be a drop in support by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Barroso is also seen as a staunch supporter of the US-led Iraq war.
As Portuguese prime minister, Barroso organised a crucial pro-war meeting in the Azores on 16 March 2003, attended by George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar.
Most EU countries bowed to EU pressure and supported the US-led war in Iraq. But diplomatic sources insisted that only a few European leaders played a pivotal role on the eve of the war, and it is their political future which is now at stake.
The Iraq invasion began on 20 March, four days after the Azores meeting. The organisation Iraq Body Count estimates that there have been between 90,000 and 99,000 civilian deaths in the country since then.