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.
I may describe myself as an Irish liberal republican, but despite Fianna Fáil sobriquet as The Republican Party and their recent membership of the pan-European political party, the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR), I feel no particular affinity towards them. It seems their fellow members of the ELDR are realizing this too. In this article from the EU Observer (hat tip to Edward Gaffney), Taoiseach Brian Cowen is having difficulty at a meeting of the ELDR because neither of the two candidates he has publicly supported for the position of President of the European Council is an ELDR member, John Bruton being a member of the European People’s Party and Tony Blair being a member of the Party of European Socialists.
Then on a European Parliament level, a motion proposed by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), the group the ELDR belong to, criticizing the freedom of information laws in Italy, reached a tie after the three Fianna Fáil MEPs abstained from the vote. Few could in all seriousness consider Brian Crowley, Pat the Cope Gallagher and Liam Aylward as the shining lights of liberalism in this country, so it is unsurprising that they raised eyebrows among their new Liberal colleagues by trying to scupper a motion on gay rights.
I think it really is a question of how long this arrangement will last. Every other party in the ELDR has a long-standing tradition of liberalism, whether a commitment to the free market or to civil liberties. It was odd in the first place that they were admitted, and it would be interesting to see the presentation they made to convince them that they were very much a different party to the one that had opposed divorce, contraception and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s, rather than simply taking a pragmatic decision to tone down their social conservatism. I doubt the ELDR would have been much impressed with Bertie Ahern’s claims to be a socialist, either. Perhaps they were just happy to get a government party, though that won’t be the case for much longer.
Far be it for me to give advice to Fianna Fáil, and this is probably more a prediction of what will occur, but it would make sense for them to make a shift within the ALDE to the European Democratic Party. They would still face criticism on matters of votes within the Parliament, but at least they would be making clear that they are different to those parties who sign up to the ELDR for liberal reasons, and would not be expected to support ELDR candidates at a supranational level. The Wikipedia page for the party shows that it comprises parties that Fianna Fáil would be much more comfortable with, such as François Bayrou‘s Democratic Movement and the Basque Nationalist Party. They would get the benefit of affiliation at an international level with centrist US Democrats, through the Alliance of Democrats. In ways, the party of Tammany Hall could well that which is closest on an international level to the traditions of Fianna Fáil.
One of Declan Ganley’s talking points on his return to the campaign was his objection to what he called the “unelected President of Europe”. The position is usually referred to as such by those critical of the new post. The position is in fact titled the President of the European Council. It replaces the rotating presidency held by the head of government of the each of the states for six months. Its job is to chair the meetings of the Council of Ministers.
The Lisbon Treaty will create a 2½-year term with the same function. It will be a more high-profile role, but they will have no policy agenda. There would be nothing for them to campaign on in any popular election that Mr Ganley desires. During the Convention which drafted the text of the Lisbon Treaty, Valéry Giscard D’Éstaing was describing what the role would in effect entail. The word “Président” is used much more in French than it would be in English, so for the only time, he used an English word, “c’est le mot anglais – chairman”.
But why this assumption that any government representative must have a direct democratic mandate? The Taoiseach could in Ganley’s terms be described as unelected, as could Britain’s Prime Minister or Germany’s Chancellor or most of the heads of government in Europe. Our representatives in the Dáil elect the Taoiseach, just as our representatives in Europe elect the Presidents of the Commission, of the Parliament, and as would be the case under Lisbon, of the Council of Ministers.
More absurdly, Mr Ganley even decried the fact that the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will not have a mandate from the people. While some countries, like France and the United States, might elect their head of government, no country elects their foreign minister.