Support for Mary Robinson to be the first elected President of the European Council (at least by the member states) has been building on Facebook, with 4500 supporters joining in a week and the support of Margot Wallstrom. Though the post will only be elected by the EU version of a papal election,* it's great to see some public discussion on who should be the first one to fill (and shape) the office.
So why do I support Mary Robinson for the Presidency? While I reject the Blairite vision of the presidency - powerful, executive, dominating the EU institutions - I can't support the idea that the President should be as mediocre as possible to avoid overshadowing Barroso (this argument has been advanced to support Jan Peter Balkenende's candidacy). The President of the European Council needs to be someone with experience - both nationally and internationally - who could play a positive part in shaping the Presidency and the EU as a whole. The idea behind creating a permanent president was to increase the political coherence and continuity of the European Council, and to give the EU a stronger voice in the global stage (in a way that compliments the post of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs) - while the dangers of a Blairite Presidency might tempt us into believing that we need a weak president, there will be little gained by having a figurehead president presiding over a visionless and fractured Council.
Mary Robinson would be a great President. A respected stateswoman who's served as President of Ireland and as the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, she can both work quietly behind the scenes to get things done as well as use her profile and position to promote the values and principles that the European Union is supposed to stand for, particularly human rights, the rule of law, and concern for those less well off or forgotten by society. As President of Ireland, she promoted a more open vision of Ireland and society. Though, as President of the European Council, Robinson would not have a strong hand in shaping the Council's actions, she could prove to be an influential progressive influence, particularly given her experience of trying to put such principles into action, through both her political career and personal campaigning. She also has experience in legislating and in European law from her time as a Senator in Ireland (1969-1989) during which she was a part of the Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation. She also founded the Irish Centre for European Law at the Trinity College and was its first Director.
There are other good contenders for the Presidency out of those being mentioned by the media at the moment. In particular, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg and the head of the EuroGroup, would be an extremely experienced choice. Brilliant at brokering deals and finding compromises, Juncker has widely-recognised experience and weight when it comes to European politics (which is why Brian Cowen visited Luxembourg as well as Brussels, Paris and Berlin when sounding out European opinion on the Lisbon Treaty guarantees). He would also be more likely to respect the constitutional and political boundaries between the High Representative, the European Council President and the Commission President than Blair or a Blair-like figure. Both Robinson and Juncker have the advantage of being small-state candidates would would maintain the Presidency as a presiding rather than executive office. But while Juncker would make a good and influential President and is More experienced when it comes to solely EU matters than Robinson (and would be my second choice), he is too wedded to the traditional secrecy of the Council, and to the summitry model of compromise politics to promote a positive political vision of Europe or promote transparency. Under a Juncker Presidency the European Council would work well, but the political signal of appointing Juncker would be a lost opportunity in my opinion - I want more from the Presidency than a "fixer".
The Presidency should give added personality and interest to European politics; it should be about articulating a vision for Europe and giving voice to the values that the EU should be guided by, as well as speaking for the Council; it should be as much about opening the European Council up as a political organisation as ensuring its coherence.
I'm not saying that Mary Robinson can single-handedly make the Council more transparent or open, or that just because she articulates the values the the EU should stand for that the Council will always follow them. However, I think that Robinson would be the best person for the job and the best political choice. Robinson wouldn't overstep the boundaries of office, but nor would she be a mediocre, faceless appointment. She could articulate a vision of Europe based on values and influence the European Council without attempting to dominate where the office can't and shouldn't. And Robinson would be a respected leader on the world stage, vocal on the behalf of the European Council and EU.
A President Robinson would signal a positive political direction for the EU.
*Actually, since I'm a supporter of a "parliamentary speaker" role for the European Council Presidency, this makes sense as an electoral process. There's no need for it to be a directly elected post if it's not an executive role.