Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Opinion

The new EU president: standard bearer or shaker?

With the waning of the Bush Presidency, the countries of Europe are becoming perceptibly more united around a pro-American stance. The leaders of Germany, France and Britain have all signalled a reappraisal of the transatlantic relationship.

In Britain's case this has been an adjustment from a position of slavish follower to one of detached and weary-wise support. But by re-emphasising common values across the Atlantic pond, Europe is repositioning itself for a new era in Washington.

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  • "At some point during the first term of America's next President the likelihood is that there will be a European number to call" (Photo: Peter Sain ley Berry)

For the United States, however, the old Johnsonian quip remains: 'When I pick up the telephone to Europe, whom should I call?' The question has been around a long time but my feeling is that it has now had its day. At some point during the first term of America's next President the likelihood is that there will be a number to call; that is should whoever is elected twelve months from now wish to reciprocate the sentiments and put that number on his - or even probably - her, speed-dialler.

This number will of course be that of the new President of the European Council. That post will come into being in 2009 with the implementation of the Lisbon constitutional reform treaty - always supposing that this is finally ratified by Europe's 27 member states. The President will take the chair of the European Council for a two and a half year term, extendable to five years by common consent.

Considering the potential importance of this post (if only as an earpiece for long distance telephone calls) surprisingly little has been said about it apart from some light speculation about possible candidates. For all I know this may be because of some unspoken agreement not to excite unduly eurosceptic opinion. Though more probably it is because different people tend to see the functions and possibilities of the post in rather different ways.

Thus one body of thought seems to view the post in distinctly low-key fashion - a co-ordinating position, a non-executive chairman, with the job simply of using 'good offices' to help along those programmes and policies in danger of becoming mired in the jungle of governance. A standard bearer rather than a mover, still less a shaker.

It would suit a retired, or semi-retired, 'buffer;' perhaps one of Mr Sarkozy's putative 'wise men,' who would preside over an office run by members of the fast stream of the bureaucratic elite. Such a person would be, in the jargon, 'a safe pair of hands' and would no doubt be wheeled out on state occasions to read speeches that others had written and vetted for him. In other words he (and almost certainly it would be a he) would be in office but not in power.

Benevolent uncle or cage rattler?

Various politicians approaching the end of their domestic prime ministerial terms (or who have recently completed them) could step comfortably into this benevolent uncle role, which would no doubt provide a fitting climax to their careers. Whether of course this is actually what Europe needs is another matter.

Yet this is but one view of the Presidency. Others, at various times, have hankered after something, or someone, more glamorous who would actually shake the tree, rattle the cage and make things happen. From all sorts of unlikely corners comes the aspiration, not always subdued, that Europe should stand taller in the world and count its global clout, not just in terms of the mouths it feeds or the size of its market, but in the way its vision is expressed at the highest levels.

The role of benevolent uncle will not attract those candidates with the qualities of statesmen with a coherent and persuasive vision of how the Continent should play its hand. Candidates who have the personal charisma to be able to say to an American President 'I speak for Europe' (and for the President to know it) will surely use the role in a rather grander way than was perhaps envisaged in the various constitutional councils.

The name of Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, has been mentioned in this connection. He certainly would not confine himself to playing the 'buffer,' but would seek to drive his own agenda. Remember the bold peroration he made to the European Parliament, on the eve of the 2005 British Presidency - a speech that heralded much incidentally and was highly regarded despite (or perhaps because) he laid into so many of Europe's sacred cows.

I am not sure that the speech triggered any change at all. It seemed to be quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, it gives us an inkling of how the Presidency of the European Council could look very different, both to Europe and the wider world if Blair, or someone like him, were to be appointed.

By coincidence, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was setting out his own slate to the European Parliament this week in a speech of similar tone, though very different substance, to the Blair speech. Even for the liberal Sarkozy, the difference between British and French approaches to Europe, between Anglo-Saxon and Frankish values, could scarcely be more marked. Sarkozy will, of course, still be President of France in 2009 and for some years after that, but were circumstances to change and his hat appear in the ring at some point then I have this extraordinary idea that he wouldn't confine himself to the 'buffer' role either.

There are of course other charismatic candidates as well as candidates whose charisma is now hidden or unknown but who may suddenly discover they have it once the glare of the European Presidency spotlight was on them. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and all that. But again the question must be asked is this what Europe needs, or indeed is ready for?

In actual fact I find this all a little frightening. It seems to me on the one hand we shall have someone appointed President who agrees to be bound as it were by the limitations of the position and who therefore risks, on the world stage, of being treated as almost irrelevant. Or we shall have someone who is used to considerably more authority than will come with the Presidency and will in a short period of time come to transform the role into a de facto Presidency of Europe, at least to outside eyes, without any real democratic sanction.

Our leaders will need to exercise their choice of candidate most carefully.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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