A camel for EU president?

November 12, 2009

camelsA camel, says an old Middle East joke, is a horse designed by a committee.

The European Union is in danger of getting camels for its two new leadership positions — president of the European Council and foreign policy High Representative — because of the dysfunctional appointment process created by the Lisbon Treaty.

The secretive horse (or camel)-trading by which EU governments choose the 27-nation bloc’s top office-holders seems designed to deter strong candidates and produce lowest-common-denominator outcomes. Some of the most able potential contenders would rather stay at home than take the key jobs to Brussels.

The treaty does not provide for a democratic election because the EU is not a state, and national governments don’t want a European president with his own legitimacy. However, the rules also seem to set aside the basic principles and procedures that any private sector company or public authority would use to select the best CEO or manager.

In a normal selection process, the jobs would go to the best qualified candidates with a clear vision, relevant experience and a track record of achievement, normally after a series of rigorous interviews. But the treaty suggests that the need to share the spoils among large and small states, and countries from the north, south, east and west of Europe is more important than criteria such as ability, charisma or experience.


In choosing the persons called upon to hold the offices of President of the European Council, President of the Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, due account is to be taken of the need to respect the geographical and demographic diversity of the Union and its Member States.

Add to this the need to divvy up the top jobs among Europe’s main political families (conservatives, socialists and liberals), and a growing demand for gender balance, and you have a selection process in which identifying the strongest talent is not necessarily the top priority.

Aggravating the problem is the increasingly clear message that politicians in the EU’s biggest member states regard holding national office as far more attractive and important that serving the European Union. Both former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and current British Foreign Secretary David Miliband have signalled they wish to stay in national politics, even if that means a long spell in opposition, rather than take the EU foreign policy job.  All three major European powers have nominated second-ranking politicians for the European Commission.

Furthermore, many national leaders do not want a strong personality in the EU presidency who might overshadow them, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is said to be not keen to have a political star as foreign policy chief (and vice-president of the Commission) for similar reasons.

After Tony Blair’s high-profile bid fell flat due to criticism of his Iraq war record and of his failure to bring Britain into the euro single currency and the Schengen zone of passport-free travel, the front-runner for European Council president is now Belgian Prime Minister Herman von Rompuy. A genial centre-right Christian Democrat with a knack for finding compromises in his linguistically divided home country and a self-deprecating sense of humour, he is little known outside Belgium and has attended only two European summits. 

Due to the imperative of political balance, Van Rompuy can only get the job if a socialist is appointed foreign policy chief. There is a dearth of socialist candidates from countries that fit the geographical matrix. Former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema is one possibility, but he is a former communist, which could raise hackles among the EU’s 10 new central and east European member states, and supporters of Israel regard him as too pro-Palestinian. There are even whispers of giving the job to Britain’s EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton — not because she knows much about foreign policy or has run a foreign ministry, but because she is socialist, female, already in Brussels and available.

France has three potential socialist contenders — current Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, former Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and former European Affairs Minister Elisabeth Guigou. But President Nicolas Sarkozy has already said publicly his nominee for the European Commission is conservative former foreign minister Michel Barnier, and he has enough trouble with digruntlement in his centre-right UMP party without giving another plum job to a socialist.

For all these reasons, the outcome when EU leaders meet to make the choice on November 19 is still wide open. But there is a growing risk that Europe will be led by camels rather than thoroughbred race-horses. Was this really what the authors of the Lisbon treaty intended?






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