Monday 5 October 2009

Blairs' Backers are making a Fundamental Error

Media attention is back on the possibility of Tony Blair becoming the President of the European Council. Many arguments surround his - possible - candidacy: his supports think he will be a strong, recognisable figure who would give the EU a greater voice on the world stage, and shape the office into an agenda-setting focal point in the EU's institutional structure. His opponents oppose him simply because they consider that Blair just isn't the right man for the job given his attachment to the US over the EU and the failure to make the pro-European case in the UK.

Blair's personal background and qualities can be (and have been) picked over: a good speaker and deal maker, experienced on the global stage, has a reputation burdened by a war legacy, is generally pro-European in outlook, failed to bring the UK into the Schengen and Euro zones, comes from a major yet largely Euroskeptic member state... However, while this is an important debate, behind it lurks the idea that the post can really become a strong executive post - and it can't.

It's not really a surprise that this impression has surfaced - the EU is incredibly fond of creating presidential titles. The heads of the Commission, Council, Parliament, ECB, etc, are all Presidents. The European Parliament even has a Council of Presidents (the party group leaders) who collectively agree on the Parliament's agenda. The European Council is also the highest level of the most powerful institution in the EU, the Council, so in many ways it's natural to assume that any presidential role emerging from this institution could become quite powerful. But while it's true that a strong first President could make the post stronger and more influential, he or she won't be able to force his or her decisions through or play a strong executive role.

First of all, the role will be that of a chairperson. There's no doubt that this could be an influential position; the Parliament has its president, so it can present an institutional voice, even if the political sands are constantly shifting in the chamber itself. In some ways the Council, by virtue of its sheer power, doesn't really need a strong spokesperson. However, a rotating presidency and the intermittent attention of member states to some issues mean that a chairperson could significantly boost its coherence. Being able to organise agenda and shape the debate will make the role important and influential - but not strongly executive.

Institutional arrangements will prevent the emergence of an overpowering President. The Commission retains the power of legislative initiative, and the Parliament has been strengthened under Lisbon so laws require a high degree of support across the EU institutions to pass. Within the Council, it's important to note that the rotating presidency doesn't disappear - when the Council is in it's "committee" forms (agriculture, etc.), it will still be chaired by the rotating presidency, except for the foreign relations circle, which will be chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs (who will also be the Vice President of the Commission). So the President of the European Council is more likely to emerge in a similar (but slightly stronger) form to the US Vice President: influential and visible, but with limited institutional reach.

The desire for a strong European Council Presidency is quite strange when it comes from the member states. Barroso's main strength in getting nominated by the Council in July was his relative subservience to state interests - is it really politically likely that member states will weaken counterbalancing leadership roles in the EU only to set up a rival in their own institutional backyard? The President of the European Council won't be able to act without the backing of the Council, so it's likely that any President to tries to be too activist would be cut down to size.

A strong Presidential role would be undesirable for several reasons: it would favour big states at the expense of smaller states who depend on the Commission to ensure the equality of states, the post wouldn't be under the scrutiny of the European Parliament unlike the Commission President, it would diminish transparency and accountability. But the fundamental error of Blair's backers is that they seek to change the office to be more than it can be; an exercise that could end up obstructing law-making when the Lisbon was supposed to streamline EU decision-making.

Blair has a well-known ability to shape the office he occupies - he was famous for his "sofa government" in the UK. An over-activist President like Blair would continuously clash with the Commission and the semi-Commission-semi-Council High Representative. A drawn out political battle for influence, while it my draw more attention to EU politics, will hinder progress on issues that actually matter. And in the end, the style of Council Presidency may end up effecting the power relationships outside the Council more than the position of the Presidency itself, since the war for influence isn't one the Presidency can win outright. How would the High Representative, Commission President and the European Parliament react to such an activist President? Would the European Parliament and Commission draw closer to offset the Council? Would the High Representative be a Trojan horse for the Council or for the Commission - or would he or she play at both? Would Barroso try to concentrate power in the Commission in his hands further?

Blair is not just the wrong man for the job, but the vision of a Presidency that he represents is simply wrong for the office. Trying to create a strong President won't create a strong EU.

1 comment:

  1. The member states need to propose their candidates for the Commission and the two new jobs in order to allow for a public debate.

    It is not enough to have media campaigning for or against Blair.