24th Sep 2023


Europe's president must defend the law

What sort of job should the President of the European Council be? Or rather, the President of Europe, for in fact that is how the job will increasingly be seen.

And what sort of person are we looking for to fill it?

Read and decide

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  • "The job description would be quickly turned to fit the man rather than being a tool for fitting the man to the job" (Photo: Peter Sain ley Berry)

How easy it is to write the word "we" - as if this job, both its description and its future incumbent, were to be chosen by the citizens, or even by their representatives? I shall begin again. What sort of person are "they" looking for to fill the position? They being a small number of people - heads of state or government - aided perhaps by their foreign ministers, who will do the choosing "democratically" on our behalf.

For, despite at least five years of active reflection, four referenda, three intergovernmental conferences, two treaties and a constitutional convention, folks in Brussels and in the national capitals are still scratching their heads and asking what is this president supposed actually to do? In vain can they turn to the treaty itself, for the job is only very barely sketched out in its pages.

It could be anything or nothing: a sinecure for an old duffer, shuffling the papers and handing out biscuits in three languages. Or it could be someone on whom the spotlight of the world's press falls day after day, whose very words make front page headlines, by whose powers of persuasion the United States agrees to a world climate change deal.

On the radio I heard someone even suggest the post should provide a ‘King' for Europe. That surely is over the top, even though I happen to be a fan of constitutional monarchies. They bring in useful tourist revenue and provide a handy focus for the nation's affections and loyalty; a rallying standard in times of distress.

I could even conceive of some much respected member of one of Europe's Royal houses at some future time becoming the symbolic embodiment of the Union. It would give us a common head to put on the coinage. Princess Diana, had she not died tragically, might have been a candidate for such a position. There were few European member states in which the more sentimental citizens would not have thrown flowers at her feet, after all.

But that is a diversion. We must focus not on kings - or even on princesses - but on lesser, though probably more powerful, mortals.

Job description?

The post of European President is surely not one where the duties and responsibilities, the reporting lines and performance indicators can be judged in advance. Whole committees could spend months locked away in the recesses of the Berlaymont or the Consilium honing a job description. Would it count for anything in the real world? Given the stature of the likely candidates, ex prime ministers or presidents all, would such a description be capable of binding anyone if they refused to be bound? Or pushing them forward on the world stage if they refused to be pushed?

So I find it rather odd that Tony Blair, who, faute de mieux, seems to be emerging as the front runner, is reported to be holding back his aspirations until such a job description is tabled. If Blair were to be given the job, we know, for good or ill, what sort of job he would do. The job description would be quickly turned to fit the man rather than being a tool for fitting the man to the job.

What any job description will say is that this president will be the servant of the member states. Yet instance after instance shows this new century to be a time when power is slipping inexorably away from member states. And not to regional groupings like the European Union, but to amorphous networks built on the pillars of global business and global communications. Communities now are no longer geographically bound within countries, but extend across the planet. Today, communities of business, science, humanitarians, of co-religionists and many more, transcend national boundaries.

The threats and challenges are global too: climate change, pandemics, migration, organised crime and terror, religious fundamentalism, poverty, illiteracy.

The nation state arose as a defence against other nation states. They existed in an unstable military equilibrium between annexing other states and being annexed themselves. Yet almost without our noticing - so quick has been the pace of change - that it may well be true to say (history will be the judge) that the military equilibrium, like the mediaeval castle, is obsolete, that the day of the aggressive or colonising war is over.

The Challenges

Of course insurrections and civil strife will continue, and armies will be needed for peacekeeping. Sabres will continue to rattle. But I venture there will be no more new Iraqs; the focus of history has shifted to enemies that are even more deadly.

Just when we in Europe thought that we had outgrown a lethal tendency to inflict civil war on our citizens every thirty or forty years, we find our states bobbing like corks on a new global sea and at the mercy of global trends, be they markets, finance, pandemics, climate, migration or what have you. The supermarket has long since replaced the superstate as the music to which we dance our daily lives.

The person who becomes European president must have the measure of these global networks and communities. The challenges with which he or she will have to deal will not be between nations but between wealth and poverty, between health and disease, between human development and climate change, between one group of global networks and another.

Yet the only framework that can tame this fluidity is international law. It is the fragile thread that offers hope of stability and order. But because the thread is feeble, it is tempting to think it can be broken with impunity, as was the case in Iraq, and now again over Kosovo's independence and the EU's mission.

One illegal act leads quickly to another. Unless international law is respected, the world will become even more dangerous than it already is. Whoever is chosen as Europe's president needs to be someone who can work with such global networks and someone who, like Caesar's wife, will defend and enhance respect for international law.

If Mr Blair is indeed the front-runner for the post of European president he should be tested on these points.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld


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

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