Henry Kissinger is said to have once remarked, when asked if he was planning to consult with Europe on something or another, “Who do I call?” Well, there may soon be an answer to that question, following the approval by Irish voters this past weekend of the European Constitution. It now appears very likely that the only two remaining countries whose approval is required, Poland and the Czech Republic, will give their approval by the end of the year. Should that occur, Europe will get a President, and, equally importantly, a Foreign Minister. These are, we are told, good things to have, and we should. Europe, taken as a entity, represents the world’s largest economy, a substantial military (and nuclear) presence, and a needed counterpoint to American (and growing Asian) geopolitical and economic influence. So this is potentially quite an important development for global geopolitics, and one would think that Europe would want to but a European face forward. So why on earth is everyone in the UK trying to push the idea that Tony Blair is the best candidate for the position?
The talking heads, and a bunch of others, are certainly all over this. Consider today’s column in the Financial Times by Charles Grant, who we’re told is the head of the Centre for European Reform, an organization with which I am unfamiliar, but no matter. He fights the good fight:
If the Lisbon treaty enters into force, which seems likely, the European Union will appoint a president to chair the European Council, which brings together the heads of government. The president will lack formal powers. His or her influence will depend on their force of personality, powers of persuasion and contact book. On those criteria Tony Blair, UK prime minister from 1997 to 2007, scores well. Many EU governments are backing him.
Well, there’s certainly Gordon Brown, and Sarkozy, and Berlusconi, but Berlusconi may find himself increasingly distracted with litigation. Aside from these these, it’s not clear who supports him. Germany certainly has reservations, the Dutch and Swedes seem to have their own candidates, the Spanish appear quite unenthusiastic, and many of the smaller states have fond wishes for Chris Patten, who does not, sadly, appear to be a serious candidate. And I imagine that the US couldn’t be happier at this prospect.
Mr Blair has enemies. Swaths of Europe’s intelligentsia – especially in Britain – despise him for his friendship with former US president George W. Bush and his role in the Iraq war. The baggage of Iraq could make it harder for a President Blair to work for and represent the EU governments.
Well, despise seems about right. There are huge numbers of Britons who feel the same way, and who sort of wish he would just stay in the US. And Grant significantly understates the problem here. It’s not his friendship, if that’s the word, with George Bush, but rather his incredibly poor judgment, demonstrated time and time again. Yes, he won lots of elections, but that’s mainly because the Tories were so hopeless, but they’re not any more, and Brown is damaged goods. But the real question is Blair’s ability to represent Europe independently as Europe, and, based on his performance as Prime Minister, he has severely compromised himself in this regard. Grant’s little swipe against the “intelligentsia” is not only unfair, but also untrue—there are lots of people, in Britain and elsewhere, who despise Blair who are hardly “intelligentsia.” And they despise him for the right reason—on the major moral issue of our time, he caved. They see him as a pure opportunist with no values to speak of.
Grant goes on with another howler: “Federalists dislike him for betraying their hopes that he would bring Britain into the euro.” Well, they have a point, and as we learned from Robert Fisk only just yesterday, the Chinese believe Blair kept the UK out of the Euro because George Bush didn’t want the UK to adopt the Euro. Gee, some recommendation. So the Federalists have a pretty good reason to distrust Blair as well.
Grant himself thinks he’s got four reasons why Blair would be a good choice. Let’s take them one by one:
First, notwithstanding Iraq, he has a track record as a successful politician. He brokered a peace deal for Northern Ireland, while his recent work on the Palestinian economy shows a commitment to settling the Middle East conflict. As for the EU, he invented its defence policy (with Jacques Chirac, the former French president), helped create the Lisbon agenda of economic reform, and ensured that climate change and energy security became priorities.
Well, yes, he’s been a successful politician. The world happens to be full of them. He did broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland—but the groundwork for that was done mostly by John Major and his government—Blair showed up just in time to pull it all together, but Blair isn’t the heavy lifting type—that was done by other people. And his work in the Middle East is something of a joke—does Grant really believe that Blair has a commitment to the middle East and settling the conflict there? Based on what? What tangible benefits can Grant point to that Blair has secured for dispossessed Palestinians? And Blair is good at mouthing platitudes about economic reform and climate change, but his record as Prime Minster suggest he was basically a Thatcher clone—there certainly was no slowdown of mindless privatization under Labour (that’s reform for you), and Blair certainly did nothing tangible to move the UK to a higher level of environmental sustainabiltiy.
Second, Mr Blair would give the EU credibility in other parts of the world. When the leader of a small country represents the EU – as sometimes happens with the current, rotating presidency – other powers do not always take it seriously. In January during the Gaza conflict, the Czech prime minister – then EU president – was not a big player in the diplomacy that tried to resolve it. The new EU president will take on that external role. Recently an Indian official said to me: “If you want us to respect your EU president, choose someone we have heard of, like Mr Blair, Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy. If you choose the prime minister of Luxembourg we may not find the time to meet him.”
Oh, right. Look, the European governments could pick Santa Claus as their President, and Indian and other politicians will still meet him. And if it’s Blair, they’ll rightly wonder whether they’re meeting someone who genuinely represents Europe, or America.
Third, Mr Blair is a great salesman. One of the EU’s big problems is that few citizens understand what it does, how it works or why it adds value. Mr Blair’s communications skills would help the Union get its message across, within Europe and beyond.
A good salesman? Wow, so are Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, based on their ability to peddle bullshit that people that actually believe. So what? If Europe’s credibility depends on who its choice to represent it is, it should just begin the dissolution process right now. Is Grant serious? Does he really run something called the Centre for European Reform?
Finally, Mr Blair could help the EU to cope with the Conservatives, who seem likely to form a British government by mid-2010. They have yet to define their EU policies but may try to opt out of parts of the Lisbon treaty or the institutions of EU defence. If David Cameron, the Tory leader, does start to move against the EU, who better to argue back than President Blair? In private he would try to dissuade Mr Cameron but, if that failed, he would defend the EU eloquently before the court of British public opinion. Though Mr Blair’s presence in Brussels would provoke eurosceptics, many Britons might start to see that the EU is not an anti-British project.
Is Grant serious? Really, it’s pretty unlikely that Cameron is going to do a wholesale walkback on EU policies, although the right fringe of the party would clearly like him to. But Cameron knows his only real chance of winning the election is to appeal to the middle swath of the electorate, and they’re not particularly unhappy with EC regulations—they know they’ve benefited from them. And why does Grant think that Blair would “defend the EU eloquently before the court of British public opinion?” He’s certainly shown no inclination to do so up to now.
Really, this is fatuous nonsense. Blair has shown no real interest in policy other than floating above it. His grasp of issues is superficial. His response to crises has generally been to do the wrong thing. This was amply demonstrated long before Iraq by his response to the Foot and Mouth crisis, where he ignored the correct scientific advice, and took “personal charge” of the disaster, with catastrophic results for British farming. Iraq , of course, is a known quantity at this point, and there is little Blair can achieve now that will undo the wreckage of that disaster. And he was the enabler—yes, Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney couldn’t wait to have their war, but it wouldn’t have happened without Blair’s support.
Blair’s continued popularity in the US isn’t really a surprise—he’s widely admired, I know, although not for particularly good reasons. What I can’t decided is whether there is widespread support for Blair outside the UK, or if this is just a British thing—hey, look, another one makes good! Blair is personable, attractive, energetic, and articulate, and he’s gotten pretty far on these attributes. But he has caused the world quite a lot of damage with his piety and self-righteousness and moral cowardice. President of the EU? He hasn’t earned it, and he doesn’t deserve it. And Europe can do better. Chris Patten, for example.
Categories: scholars and rogues