by Frank Schnittger
Tue Feb 12th, 2008 at 02:00:29 PM EST
William Hague does a very good job of ridiculing the prospect of a Blair Presidency in the video above. But are the Eurosceptic Tories afraid that Blair might actually make the EU a much more powerful and relevant body in Britain and throughout the world?
Let me make it clear at the outset that I admire the enterprise, resourcefulness, collaboration and speed of action by all involved in the StopBlair campaign. Drafting quite a complex petition, gaining consensus agreement on it, translating it into more than a dozen languages, implementing it on a petition website complete with logos and some bells and whistles, and publicising it quite widely, all within a couple of days, is a very impressive achievement. I hope we will see many other similarly impressive campaigns like this in the future.
So why haven't I signed the petition (yet)? Update [2008-2-13 4:40:41 by Frank Schnittger]: I've signed today, partly in response to arguments in comments below. My thanks to all who responded to this debate.
I can certainly understand all the reasons for opposing his appointment: The visceral dislike of Blair - particularly in Britain, the sense of betrayal of his party's socialist ideals, the Iraq war, the selling out to an imperialist and warmongering US regime, the betrayal of European ideals and achievements such as the Bill of Rights, the Euro and Schengen, the incessant deception and spin. The case should really be as open and shut as they come.
And yet I have my doubts as to whether his appointment to the Presidency of the Council would necessarily be such a bad thing. First of all, the job, as defined by the Treaty is something of a non-job. It has no direct policy or executive powers and consists largely of a responsibility to Chair and progress the business of the Council as efficiently and effectively as possible. Although the President of the Council is supposed to represent the EU abroad, all power over foreign policy is vested in the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Virtually all administrative resources, and power to initiate legislation in the European Parliament is vested in the European Commission. So arguably, the Presidency of the Commission is a much more substantial role.
The Presidency of the Council role is currently rotated between the 27 member Governments -which means there is a huge lack of continuity, consistency and sometimes even competence. It has virtually no independent power except insofar as the holder can "knock heads together" and achieve a weighted majority on the Council in support of his proposals. It is hard to see Sarkozy, Merkel, Brown et al rolling over if a proposal is not to their liking, or if the President does not fulfill his duties in line with their overall priorities. Blair comes with a lot of baggage. That also means people will see him coming if he comes up with some mad cap schemes.
The whole problem with the EU Reform Treaty is that it does create such a crazy structure that there is bound to be a lot of institutionalised conflict between the Commission, Parliament, High representative and European Council. The Idea that the President of the Council should be a high profile appointment with the respect of his peers (if no one else) is not necessarily a bad one, as it will increase the profile of the EU within Europe and the world as a whole and create an expectation that more and more decisions, previously made at national level, will now be made at EU level.
Of course many ordinary EU citizens will also be quite horrified that they are being represented by someone like Tony Blair. There will be demonstrations and protests, and rightly so. However, the very fact that a key EU (and currently very opaque) institution will then achieve a much more prominent place in public discourse throughout the EU will also be a good thing. Governments will be under enormous pressure to ensure that Tony Blair does not drag the EU off in a direction that their electorates will not tolerate. His every utterance will be parsed for nuances that might betray a less than full commitment to the European ideals as enshrined in the Reform Treaty.
Whatever about the merits of what Blair will actually achieve during his term of office, there seems little doubt that a key EU institution will have achieved some considerable prominence in the lives of EU citizens and in their political imaginations. Calls for a directly elected President of the Council can only increase if that becomes the case, and is that really such a bad outcome?
The logic of all this may seem to be unbearably Machiavellian, for most, if not all readers here. Europe has a bad history of failing to control some seriously deranged leaders. The price of achieving greater prominence for EU institutions may be altogether too high if Blair does succeed in (say) persuading the European Council to adopt draconian security measures which restrict human rights in response to the "War on Terror". My own guess is that Blair would resign in utter frustration after a relatively short period in office, because the role is in reality little more than that of a back-room fixer: the sort of job Solana currently does in his spare time.
But it is high time that the EU began to exert some real influence in world affairs - somewhat more in line with its status as the largest economic entity in the world. Climate change, peak oil, non-renewable resource depletion, the Middle East, terrorism, human rights, world trade, currency and financial stability - are all issues that require dramatically more proactive leadership at a world level. At the moment the US is able to ride roughshod over all other world powers almost by default - regardless of the merits of the case - and almost always in the interests of a small wealthy elite obsessed with expanding their power and wealth at everybody else's expense.
Tony Blair's last role as British Prime Minister was almost entirely consumed by his self-perceived need to shore up a medium sized power's delusions of past grandeur by maintaining a largely illusory "special relationship" with the US. His next role, as EU Council President, would be to help build up an EU power structure which could, in due course, become an alternative or counterpoint to US hegemony. The main question is "who would he be working for?" if he was appointed Council President. EU Council members would have to leave him in no doubt that he is working for THEM. The question is would the Council members succeed in managing and controlling him, where the UK Parliament and the Labour party failed so dismally.
I have confidence that the EU Council would be able to ensure that he works in the EU's best collective interests, and that EU itself would be strengthened by the battles fought to ensure that that was the case. If you are a Europhile and want to see the EU gain in influence in European and world affairs sooner rather than later, there is an argument for appointing Tony Blair.
It is a very difficult argument to sustain, and I'm not sure I really want to make it. I may yet end up signing the StopBlair petition. But in the meantime I think its worth having the debate, if only to demonstrate that the European Tribune encourages debate on a wide range of issues, and that no political view is above questioning and criticism, however widely held by the membership here.