If not Blair, who for EU Council president?

November 4, 2009


Within a couple of weeks, European Union leaders are going to choose the first president of the European Council now the Lisbon Treaty has finally been ratified.

It won’t be Tony Blair, given the opposition of his European Socialist comrades to the former British prime minister and the hostility of several west European governments. So it’s time to subject some of the other contenders to the same scrutiny that Blair has faced as the undeclared front-runner in this surreal race. Most of the 27 EU leaders appear to want a low-key, consensus-building chairman of their quarterly summit meetings rather than a high-profile globe-trotting statesman.

Opponents of Blair cited several grounds — his loyalty to George W. Bush and support for the Iraq war; the fact that he failed to bring Britain into the euro single currency or the Schengen zone of passport-free travel in his 10 years in power; the fact that he is a strong personality from a large member state. r. Let’s see how the other aspirants fare on those criteria, and what other skeletons they may have in their closet.

Blair’s only declared opponent was Jean-Claude Juncker (second from right), the veteran prime minister of Luxembourg and chairman of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers. Juncker opposed the Iraq war. His tiny country of 450,000 souls is a founder member of the EU and all its common policies. The Luxembourger prides himself on having brokered many compromises between EU heavyweights France and Germany. But his old-style European federalism is out of fashion in Berlin and Paris, as well as London and much of northern and central Europe. Juncker has a strong political aversion for Britain which surfaces in sometimes outspoken comments late at night or after a drink or two. He alienated French President Nicolas Sarkozy last year due to his perceived passivity when the financial crisis erupted, and his defence Luxembourg’s banking secrecy in a bitter standoff over tax havens. He has few admirers among the new member states of central and eastern Europe.

I wrote on this blog last week that Jan-Peter Balkenende (third from left) seemed well placed because he is a grey man with few sworn enemies in Europe. Balkenende supported the Iraq war, but not as actively as Blair. Dutch troops did not fight to topple Saddam Hussein. An independent inquiry headed by a retired judge is now investigating how the government came to support the war when its own intelligence service doubted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Balkenende has made coalitions with almost everyone, including the far-right anti-immigrant Pim Fortuyn List which entered parliament in 2002 after its founder was assassinated. His seven years in office have been marked by a sharp rise in xenophobia and Euroscepticism in the Netherlands. He lost a referendum on the EU constitution in 2005. He has made no notable contribution to the EU, nor shown any particular interest in European affairs. He did raise hackles, particularly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, by promising parliament in 2005 he would win a 1 billion euro annual reduction in the Dutch EU contribution and negotiating stubbornly until he achieved that aim. That may explain the distinct lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy in Berlin.

Merkel would probably prefer former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel (right), a trusty conservative ally. Schuessel’s main black mark, in many eyes, is having formed a coalition with the extreme-right Joerg Haider’s anti-immigration Freedom Party, in 2000. This prompted the 14 other EU governments to shun high-level contacts with Vienna in what proved to be a counter-productive gesture. They ended their boycott after commissioning a report by three “wise men” concluded there had been no breach of fundamental European values in Austria. It led to the insertion of a clause in the EU’s Nice Treaty providing for the possible suspension of a member state which did breach fundamental rights.

Schuessel initially kept Austria’s borders closed to workers from neighbouring central European EU newcomers and was unenthusiastic towards Turkey’s bid for EU membership, although not as outspokenly opposed as French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He would be seen as “Berlin’s man” if he got the EU Council presidency.

Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy (second from left) has been mentioned in recent days as a possible candidate. He lacks EU experience having attended only two summits since taking office, but diplomats say his subtle intelligence commands respect at the European top table. The centre-right van Rompuy crafted a compromise to keep Belgium’s fractious Flemish and Francophone communities together after a lengthy political crisis following the 2007 general election. Britain and other countries opposed to a centralised, federal Europe have always been suspicious of Belgian candidates for EU leadership positions. London torpedoed then Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt’s bid to head the European Commission in 2004 and his predecessor Jean-Luc Dehaene’s bid in 1994.

The other contenders that have been mentioned are former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen (left) and former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga (third from right). Lipponen is unlikely to win out because his Socialist political family has chosen to go for the EU foreign policy chief position rather than the presidency. A keen supporter of European integration, he ran a successful Finnish presidency in 1999. But even Lipponen’s former aides describe him as a plodder. After six years out of office, he may be too out of touch with the cut-and-thrust of EU governance to stand a strong chance.

Vike-Freiberga is an inspiring public speaker with strong Atlanticist views who returned from a long exile in Canada after the Baltic states gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. A centrist with no party affiliation, she could benefit from efforts to inject some gender balance into the EU’s top positions. But she has never run a government and rarely attended European summits in her eight years in office. She might be more of a figurehead than a hands-on leader.

Each of the contenders has strengths and weaknesses. None is anywhere near as internationally known — or as divisive — as Blair. Take your pick.


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