Open Europe Blog

It’s not too late

EU leaders are already running into problems with the ambiguity of the Lisbon Treaty, as they battle it out over whether or not the post should be, as David Cameron put it, “all-singing, all dancing” (Tony Blair), or more low-key and more akin to the kind of role the rotating EU President currently plays (Juncker, Balkenende).

Either way, the EU President will have no democratic mandate whatsoever, so anything other than a low-key role coordinating the EU agenda and similar to the current role of the rotating EU President is essentially a power grab.

The new EU President will earn roughly the same basic salary as the democratically-elected President of the United States, who has the support of 70 million people. The EU President, meanwhile, will have been appointed by a handful of leaders meeting behind closed doors in Brussels, with no input at all from national parliaments, let alone the people.

It is absurd, and a perfect illustration of how out of touch and anti-democratic the EU has become. The President will be appointed by a qualified majority vote in the Council (potentially as few as 18 people) so no country has a veto.

The people pulling the strings in the corridors of Brussels are amazingly arrogant about this fact. A couple of weeks ago an unnamed senior French diplomat pointed out that although most people in Europe will be against the idea of Blair for EU President, because of his position on the Iraq war, that makes no difference at all, because “only public opinion is concerned about this, not the 27 Heads of State and Government that will vote him in”.

The current system of rotating EU Presidencies, which Lisbon replaces, is not ideal, but at least it means that prime ministers and presidents who have a current, democratic mandate to rule get to set the agenda in Europe for six months at a time. Appointing an ex-PM or President like Tony Blair will move the EU even further away from the people, as it is likely that whoever it is will have fallen from grace in his or her own country. He is yesterday’s news.

In what other region in the world does an ex-leader get to represent millions of people on the world stage, rubbing shoulders with Barak Obama? This is a huge step backwards for democracy, and the more powerful and grandiose the role, the further the EU will move away from the people.

In some ways, it would be good if Tony Blair was appointed EU President, because it would bring home to many people exactly what the Lisbon Treaty means. It would be the first tangible consequence of the Treaty. For years, people have struggled to understand why they should care about the Treaty, and what it will mean in practice. The Lib Dems, for instance, would hate to see Tony back in power and yet they strongly pushed for this role to be created by supporting the Treaty and conspiring to deny ordinary people a say. Lib Dem delegates at this year’s conference backed a motion saying Blair should not become EU President – but they really should have thought of that much earlier.

In yesterday’s Evening Standard Ann McElvoy made a good point about the paradox of giving Blair, the man who divided Europe so deeply over foreign policy, the role of trying to craft a united foreign policy. But she also questioned whether a small nation would have the clout. This dilemma, which EU leaders are now having to confront, exactly represents the problem with the Treaty and the mistaken idea that you can create consensus where none exists by attempting to shoehorn countries through the creation of new institutions.

The Lisbon Treaty is deliberately vague about what he or she will do. The job title is one of many ‘unanswered’ questions about the Treaty, which meant MPs were essentially signing a blank cheque when they agreed to the Treaty last year. It will depend to a certain extent on the job title of the EU Foreign Minister (another unanswered question), and of course the person who takes the job first. To a great extent, the furore over Blair in the media is futile, since ordinary people have absolutely no say at all in who will take this job or what it will look like. By signing the Treaty, we have already handed that power irrevocably to the European Council (unless of course the Czechs now scupper the Treaty).

However, it’s clear that right from the beginning, Tony Blair wanted this role to be a powerful, symbolic and international one. During negotiations on the original EU Constitution back in 2002-2003, Peter Hain, acting on behalf of the UK Government, tried to amend the text so that the EU President would have responsibility for the general “external representation of the Union”.

Article 15 of the Lisbon Treaty says: “The President of the European Council shall, at his or her level and in that capacity, ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.”

However, Peter Hain tried to change it to simply read: “The President of the European Council shall in that capacity ensure, at his level, the external representation of the Union, without prejudice to the responsibilities of the President of the Commission and the Minister for Foreign Affairs.” (See here for how Peter Hain tried to cross out the words “on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy” )

Surely this is a good climate in which to scrap the whole idea. After all, it’s not too late.

Open Europe will be supporting a demo tomorrow morning between 10am and 12pm at the Rondpont Schuman in Brussels, just outside the Council, in support of Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who is still holding out against the Treaty.

Come grab your Czech flag and join us!

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