Tuesday 13 October 2009

Mary Robinson for the Presidency!

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.


  1. Mary Robinson embodies the founding values of the European Union, as you eloquently put it.

    This could actually be more important than competing for the limelight on the world scene with the Commission president, the new High Representative and the leaders of the member states, who have not come around to a real EU foreign policy yet.

  2. Very interesting post, but I'd like you to explain further what should be the actual role of the Council Presidency, so that it can have a real influence on EU politics. Does it make sense to have a "parliamentary speaker" role if we already have a Commission, a Parliament, a High Representative and so on...

  3. Great post Conor - showing a knowlege both of the role and the key personalities. It's also great that there is a genuine popular interest in the post and who should fill it - perhaps we have the mindless UK media compaigning for Blair to thank for that. The STOP Blair petition at the European Tribune now has 37,000 signittories - whilst the week old facebook group supporting Mary Robinson has 4000+members. It's easy to see where the popular momentum is.

  4. @ Eva Pena: it is well-known that the EU national leaders do not want a "strong" President of the Council. Perhaps they prefer someone as malleable as Commission President Barroso? Mary Robinson has not only a CV that must be the envy of international politicians everywhere but has the personal qualities that would enable her to ensure equal access for all states of whatever size (eg no bullying from M Sarkozy, nor pressurising from Frau Merkel - not to speak of the schmaltz of the Italian President!).

    First, as I understand it, the President of the Council would chair their meetings. Second s/he would be the leading figure (the international face) of the EU. Possibly involved in international negotiations but not as the sole EU representative, because several member nations are members of international trade/economic/etc meetings (eg G20). Also, since Lisbon would register the EU a single, legal entity, the President of the Council would represent that entity in a variety of situations.

    Mary Robinson's strength lies in getting people to work together - but especially in terms of human rights (surely a central feature of Lisbon) - but "for real". She would no doubt have her own "agenda" as to what the job entails (it is very loosely described in the Treaty documents), and would ensure that it gets an airing, at least.

  5. Very good post. Thanks. I fully agree with your analysis. So let's hope for the best and please, please, please, no Balkenende!

  6. @ all


    @ Eva


    I think it makes sense for the E. Council to have a speaker, since it will add to the political coherence of the body. But I also think that a (strong) speaker's role is what the Lisbon Treaty points towards, given the lack of a vote or veto of the President and the primacy of the Commission and the High Representative in the executive, legislative (initiative) and foreign policy/EU representation areas. So I think it should be a speaker's role because of a mix of political and institutional reasons - I don't think the institutional balance or treaty powers can accept an executive President, and politically it would be counter-productive to try.

    A President with standing who can influence the Council and personalise the politics of the EU s what's needed. I think the functions of the President should be: to organise the summits and their agenda, keep Council work running smoothly, represent the Council on an international and inter-institutional basis, and articulate a political vision for Europe. I think Robinson has the best qualities to do this, as Grahnlaw and frenchderek have said.

    (It'd influence EU politics in general if the Council had a face and was more transparent, so it could make it easier to follow - I'd think a strong/executive Presidency would muddy things further with no benefits either in terms of outcomes or on the politics of the EU).

    @ Grahnlaw

    I agree - the officeholder will have the opportunity to articulate a vision of Europe that could be very influential in the political debate & in international perceptions of Europe, while the HR would be far more constrained in some ways.

    @ Frank

    Thanks! There's probably plenty of room for overlap between the two.

    @ Eurosocialiste

    Yes, Balkenende would be the worst after Blair in my opinion.

  7. Barroso, Blair, Balkenende. It seems almost anyone whose surname begins with B is unacceptable in an EU position of power???

  8. @ french derek, works for Berlusconi too :) but not for Buzek!