Nigel Farage, United Kingdom Independence Party MEP, used the occasion of the first visit of Herman Van Rompuy, the new President of the European Council, to let him know exactly what he thinks of him, going as far as to call Belgium a non-country.
Leave aside the fact that Mr Farage undermines his argument by his lack of basic courtesy, given President Van Rompuy’s standing, his power and influence cannot be seen to be overbearing in the way suggested. As I have written before, someone like Herman Van Rompuy is the best person for the job for those who worry about the encroaching power of the European Union. Given a choice between Mr Van Rompuy and someone with greater presence, surely Mr Farage should rather fear the alternative.
Personally, I think we’d be better off having someone whom President Obama would naturally think to meet at summits. Or else, damn the lack of words in French vocabulary, rename Mr Van Rompuy’s position Chair of the European Council, which is all it really is, so that José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, is the clear occupant of the top role, rather than the multiplicity and confusion we have now.
During the Lisbon Treaty campaign, Declan Ganley made a big deal of the fact that it created the positions of the unelected President of Europe and the unelected Foreign Minister. I’ve critiqued this in another forum, and now with the appointment yesterday, we see that there was too much truth to my rebuttal.
The position is not, of course, that of President of Europe, but President of the European Council. The role has no executive power, and serves only to act as a chairman at the meetings of the European Council, the forum at which the 27 heads of the government of EU countries meet and decide the policy of the Union. Valéry Giscard d’Éstaing said that the best way to describe it was with the English word chairman, but in French, every such role ends up being called président. It wouldn’t make sense for it to be popularly elected under such circumstances. And no country I know of elects its Foreign Minister directly, so no one could expect that to be the case with our new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
But even if the role is to be no more than a chairman, I would still like to be inspired. I wish there had been a little more truth to Declan Ganley’s claims. European leaders had allowed the role to be built up in people’s minds, that it would be someone who could stand on the world stage and meet Barack Obama, Hu Jintao or Vladimir Putin. José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, currently serves something of that role, as when he took part in the G20 meetings. But he is really the head of Europe’s civil services, while the President of the European Council can said to speak for the respective heads of government.
That was all they wanted him to do, apparently. That he would represent accurately the various positions of the 27 leaders. Tony Blair was never really a runner as a candidate; his early standing as favourite was merely because the clear anyone-but-Blair candidate had yet to emerge. But it was not just his unpopularity even among his own Party of European Socialists that hurt Blair, it was that they wanted nothing like him. They wanted someone who would not hurt the profiles of the big hitters in Europe. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded Tony Blair, but his general unpopularity would have made him an unwise choice.
President-elect Herman Van Rompuy is perfect for those who fear the overarching Europe, who worry about the powers wielded by the unelected Eurocrats. We were told to worry because the role of President isn’t well-defined, beyond chairing meetings of the Council. No one expects him to do more than that. But is this what we went to all this trouble for?
Added to this was the even more uninspiring choice for High Representative, Commissioner for Trade Catherine Ashton, a British life peer who has never held elected office. Holding onto the possibility of Blair for President, while all knew it would never happen, was a clever way for Gordon Brown to get leverage, and might serve as a way to show the Conservatives that they can get something out of Europe. But according to reports, she wasn’t even the top Briton discussed for the job, with David Miliband, the foreign secretary, Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, Geoff Hoon, former defence secretary, ahead of her. I wonder if the US State Department had a greater file on her than what they found on Wikipedia. While she insists she was the best person for the job, it’s probably more true that she got it because David Miliband would like to be leader of the Labour Party this time next year.
One thing particularly discouraging about President-elect Van Rompuy is his reason five years ago for dismissing the admission of Turkey into the EU, appealing to Christianity, and Turkey being an Islamic country. This is not helpful, either in encouraging Turkey to modernize, or in integrating the many Muslims living within the European Union. Nor is it a justification which I, as an atheist, particularly think is helpful.