Blair’s candidacy would give EU more credibility

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Tony Blair would give the new position of Council President a “public momentum that very few others would,” bringing “credibility to the EU project,” argues Luis Simon, a teaching assistant at the Centre for European Politics, Royal Holloway College, University of London. But his candidacy ultimately depends on the “ability and will of the EU 27” to balance the divisions evoked by Iraq and his Eurosceptic image, he explains.

The following is a reproduction of a paper by Luis Simon, a teaching assistant and PhD candidate at the Centre for European Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

Sometime around the end of the French presidency, in the second half of this year, the 27 heads of state and government that make up the EU Council will choose their President for two and a half years, a mandate which can only be renewed once. According to the Treaty, the Council will elect its President through qualified majority voting (QMV); according to conventional wisdom it will do so by resorting to some kind of combination of QMV and consensus (whatever that means). The ‘package factor’ will definitely play a role, as by the same time this year Barroso will have to announce whether he will attempt a second mandate, and the Council will have to decide whether Solana’s reign will continue. 

Given the inherently heterogeneous nature of the EU, numerous and different variables will have to be weighed up by numerous and different politicians. There is the supranational versus intergovernmental balance, the right versus left balance, the north versus south balance, the east versus west balance,  and the small state versus big state balance. There is the ‘Let’s go for charisma’ versus ‘I’d rather have a deal breaker’ dilemma. There is the ‘How is he  going to get along with Solana?’  question (yes, everybody is assuming it will be a ‘he’ by now, so no gender balance). There is the issue of the Franco-German input. There is the ‘What have you done when you were in office?’ question and the ‘How would you and your country prove your European credentials?’ requirement. For one thing, there is the problem that we still do not know what is it he will have to do nor, for that matter, what is it that he will not have to do. You know, this is one of those difficult choices. 

A decision on the name is still a long way off and, rightly or wrongly, most insiders judge it too premature in the current context to start playing the name game. Whereas the bubble seems to be growing uncomfortably bigger in Brussels’ European quarter, the story will just get a few modest headlines en province, and only then when the day itself comes. 

However, and beyond the EU’s alleged failure to be a true Union of the people, by the people and for the people, symbolism runs deep. After all, whoever wins the lucky number (and it might be luck indeed!) will get to be the first elected president of a democratic and peaceful Europe. Here in town, despite systematic calls for prudence and restraint, names are starting to break underneath the doors of the many conference rooms that connect the European Parliament with the higher end of Rue de la Loi (the site of the EU Council and EU Commission): Jean-Claude Juncker, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Bertie Ahern, Wolfgang Schüssel, Tony Blair…yes…you heard right… Tony Blair. How dare he? 

More than two weeks ago, Philip Stephens argued in the Financial Times that “European leaders need a President, not a nonentity”: visibility shall be the defining issue, he asserted. It is the man that will shape the job. After all, as Stephens put it most politically incorrectly, you might want to think twice before embracing a name that has hardly been heard in Washington or Beijing. If you are looking to make the point that the EU matters, if what you want is to underline that the most publicly visible contribution of the long-awaited Treaty is for real, then you want a name that will be chased by traditional media and bloggers alike. This is something Blair can get you: he will give the job the public momentum that very few others would. In fact, the very leaking of his name in the early phases of the debate may be largely motivated by a desire to inject some glamour into public deliberations. 

Thus far, Blair has the support of Sarkozy and the silence of Merkel. Not a bad start, one would be tempted to say; this support might, however, turn out to be a Kiss of Death, like some sort of big fellows’ plot to control the Union. 

So Blair is ‘No Schengen, no Euro, thank you,’ we hear. Well, maybe that should not be an excuse against him as much as an argument in his favour. Wouldn’t such deference stimulate the debate about the EU in the United Kingdom? Wouldn’t that contribute to the crucial enterprise of marketing the EU in Britain? If, as Euro-experts keep reminding us, the EU and Britain badly need each other for a safe ride through the 21st century, Blair’s getting the post might turn out to be quite an important asset for both the EU and Britain. 

Besides, aren’t they running education or health policy in Scotland? Or are education and health just not that important? There is nobody in Britain seriously asking why there is a Scot in Downing Street in a context of devolution. Although the parallel is probably an unfortunate one, it suffices to illustrate the point that there are many superfluous arguments that can hijack a public debate and divert it from meaningful discussion. 

It is, on the other hand, true that in democracy superfluousness lies in the eye of the beholder. Discussion should, arguably, focus on who will be best for the EU, and not just to the job. It is well known in the EU universe that the tasks of a particular job offer as much latitude as the job holder is willing and able to invent. Look at Solana. Let us not fool ourselves – this is not like any other EU job. If anything related to the job description is clear as of today, it is its enormous potential to deliver the public symbolism that the EU has historically lacked, and an EU of 27 badly needs. 

So I was saying that many tangential issues can hijack a public debate from meaningful discussion. I’m afraid Iraq does not fall into that category. The ability to unite Europeans will certainly be a key quality the future President will be expected to show. Beyond the fact that a majority of EU member states supported the American initiative to intervene militarily in Iraq, Tony Blair played a characteristically salient part in the whole drama. This very fact may prove to be the ultimate test for the Briton’s bid: Blair would have the hardest time getting Europeans to get over his role in Iraq. 

In spite of whatever merits a big name might bring, for most Euro-enthusiasts the bottom line will be Blair’s controversial image -a controversy that revolves around his ‘No Schengen, no Euro’ position and his role in Iraq. Nonetheless, and while the jury is still out on that one, it might be worth having a closer look at Blair’s CV to see to what extent the man can sell Europeanness: His engaging attitude during the Northern Ireland peace process ranks, arguably, at the very top of Tony Blair’s legacy, and fits well within the European ideal. Although still in the making, European values surely include a cult of dialogue and compromise. 

Blair’s government has fought hard to promote a culture of regionalisation and power sharing in what has historically been one of the most centralised political cultures in the world. His tenure has not only witnessed devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also a (failed) attempt to promote regionalisation in England. This does sell in the Post-Westphalian Europe of subsidiarity. 

Blair has justifiably won the appellative of most pro-European British prime minister. In a wider constant of Europeanness, Blair’s crucial role in the development of a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), his signature (a British signature) of a document which had the words ‘Europe’ and ‘Constitutional’ on it (yes, of course he had red lines) or his activism in launching a Lisbon Agenda which is aimed at striking a balance between growth and social justice in the challenging setting of the global knowledge economy can hardly be understated. Not just peanuts… 

Someone like Blair would bring important assets to the EU’s growingly pressing global agenda. He could do the trick with the Americans by most importantly helping reassure Washington of the complementary, not conflicting, nature of the expanding ESDP initiative vis-à-vis NATO. His credentials as both a champion of free trade and an advocate for the reform of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy would add much good to the EU’s chemistry with leaders of other rich and poor countries alike in an era where global trade issues are, and will continue to be, high on the EU’s agenda. 

Last but not least, Tony Blair and New Labour have offered a thoughtful and comprehensive guide for welfare-minded cultures to survive in a context of economic globalisation. The Third Way has challenged an old and disputed maxim in Western thinking: a strong State and a strong civil society are not incompatible, but indeed necessarily complementary, Giddens dixit. In the days in which Americans are criticised for their realism and Europeans for their idealism, Blair’s Third Way rhetoric has managed to bridge the American dream with European soberness, to put it (very) bluntly. 

However, he may ironically end up falling victim of having majored in bridge-building at a time when the Transatlantic Bridge was inevitably falling apart anyway. Although the final judgement of New Labour’s record on welfare policies will depend on how far to the right or to the left one sits, Blair’s pedagogic task should be widely recognised: life-long learning; education, education, education; help people help themselves; protect the guy, not the job! While the President of the EU Council would indeed sniff very few of these core issues, all too well guarded in the fortress of domestic politics, Europe could use that kind of talk at the highest political level. 

To be sure, the viability of Blair’s candidacy will depend on the fullly fledged support of the British government (tbc) and, ultimately, upon the ability and will of the Twenty Seven to balance the divisions that the Briton’s record on Iraq and his image as a Eurosceptic evoke, with the momentum that a politician of his stature can bring to the credibility of the EU project. Are they ready? Are we? 

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