The position of EU President has finally been decided, and despite long speculation surrounding various candidates – most notably regarding Tony Blair – the Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy has landed this supposedly prestigious role.
The EU as an institution has a chequered history in many respects – especially in terms of its public representation – and the decision to have a figurehead is a progressive one, yet one which also holds inherent risks. Many in this country associate the union with bureaucracy, and regard it as a paper-pushing body rather than one which formulates policy or that makes important decisions. I think that this interpretation is overly critical, and has led to ignorance in British politics, most obviously in the form of the BNP who have abused such stereotypes to gain support for wholly unacceptable means.
However, the EU does have much to do to be recognised as a political success, in addition to its obvious progress economically. This has led to the Lisbon treaty and the creation of a European leader, someone not only to give the union notoriety and respectability in international politics, but also to pressurise constituent countries to come to decisions and be actively involved in European politics. This position, and the political results it inspires, may in many ways be a make or break development for the EU.
Tony Blair had been proclaimed as a leading candidate for the position of President, eventually gaining public support from former colleagues, such as Gordon Brown and David Milliband. However, negotiations by EU leaders, many looking for a candidate they could influence, or at least not be overshadowed by, have led to the appointment of the relatively unknown 63-year old Belgian, who has been described as ‘harmless’ and is notable for his interest in writing Haikus. Tony Blair’s failure to land this illustrious and ground-breaking role may well be a major setback for Europe.
I agree that Blair’s Iraq war legacy and his reputation for spin were blemishes on Blair’s claim for the presidency, yet he held what no other candidate did: prestige, being described as an EU president who could ‘stop traffic’. Familiar in the world of politics, and known for his charisma and enthusiasm, Tony Blair has been one of the highest paid speakers in the world since retiring from British politics, and people do not usually pay huge sums of money to hear someone they actively despise talk to them.
The idea that Blair has no credibility in politics, or evokes negative sentiment from most people when they reflect on his tenure as Prime Minister, is simply untrue. Someone of Blair’s standing was exactly what the EU needed. He would have given the impression of a world-leading and respectable organisation, instead of a bureaucracy with more interest in the curvature of a banana than meaningful policy. With adequate resources, he may well have actually created a more cohesive and effective partnership in Europe, leading to the entity as a whole being regarded as a major world force in a way that no European country has managed since the growth of America as a world superpower.
Henry Kissinger once famously asked whom to call if he wanted to call Europe. If the European Union wanted somebody with clout to pick up that phone, then choosing Van Rompuy, a political lightweight whose biggest asset was his lack of enemies, is an undoubted mistake. The European Union presidency has the potential to be one of the most important positions on the international scene, and while our former Prime Minister may not have been perfect, he had the star quality to turn the EU into a coherent and well-respected body on the world stage. Instead the union is left with an increasingly uncertain political future, stemming from a president with no international – or even European – prestige.