New presidents for Europe and America?

The presidential race in the United States has been well underway for quite some time. Everyone has heard of the frontrunners John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and even those who have dropped out like Rudolph Giuliani. Less well known though is the fact that the position of ‘President of Europe’ is also up for grabs from 2009—or as soon as the Treaty of Lisbon is ratified and comes into force across our continent. In reality, the person who assumes the position will be president of the European Council, whose role it is to set the general political guidelines and steer the direction of the European Union. The ‘president’ will be able to hold the post for up to five years depending on renewal and will have the mandate to chair meetings of the Council of Ministers, represent the Member States, and act as a mediator between their competing interests. But he or she might also be able to craft out a position of authority, actually driving policy by shaping the parameters of debate. In part, depending on the candidate, the new position is likely to be one of considerable influence, which could lead to enhanced coordination and cooperation at the European level.

Several names have already been put forward for the post. The European Council will appoint the best candidate either in late 2008 or early 2009, depending on the speed of the ratification process in each of the Member States. Out of several potential candidates, one name keeps popping up again and again and that name is Tony Blair. Online petitions have already been formed by the usual suspects in order to try and prevent his appointment, and a group on Facebook has already been formed to support him. Other potential personalities include Jean-Claude Juncker, Wolfgang Schüssel and Romano Prodi. I have to lay my cards on the table at this point and confess that I think Tony Blair—who is currently the Middle East Peace Envoy—is not merely the only dynamic candidate out of what remains as as otherwise rather uninspiring bunch, but is actually the natural candidate for the post. So why would Tony Blair make a good president of the European Council?

First, Mr. Blair is one of the most well-known politicians in the world. Unlike Mr. Prodi he is not a political failure, having been the only Labour prime minister in the United Kingdom to gain three consecutive terms in office. While many consider him to be a controversial figure, particularly given his support for the removal of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, he is nevertheless a dynamic speaker, and a figure of authority. Some of his speeches—such as his ‘Speech to the European Parliament’ in 2005, or his speech on the ‘Doctrine of the International Community’ in Chicago during 1999—were truly groundbreaking, and in some ways have changed the course of European and global history. As European Council president, people from all over our continent and the wider world would be very likely to be interested in what Mr. Blair has to say on any range of issues. This can only be to the benefit of Europe, which will be provided with a higher international profile and greater cultural reach.

Second, the very fact that Mr. Blair is such a controversial figure is perhaps something to celebrate. What could be worse than a staid and politically boring figure as European Council president—a person of consensus, unwilling to make his or her voice heard above the din of contemporary European politics? While having Mr. Blair as president could turn droves of people against the project of European integration, he could also inject a renewed sense of political purpose in the whole project as people fight to have appointed a different candidate. Political struggle is constitutive of the socio-political community; without it, there could be no society. Unwittingly, by appointing Mr. Blair as president, European leaders could contribute to the ongoing creation of a European public sphere, whose emergence is already apparent within the blogosphere. The debate might even contribute one day to the prospect of an elected president and a connected European presidential race, which would provide the European Union with enhanced democratic legitimacy.

Third, Tony Blair would automatically command the respect of the other great powers. He is listened to in Washington, and has the political will and assertiveness to stand up to our competitors, such as the Russians and Iranians. As the former political head of the British state, he has a solid understanding of the dynamics of the international system, and a good knowledge of the way in which Europeans can exercise world power. Potential candidates like Romano Prodi, Wolfgang Schüssel and Jean-Claude Juncker come nowhere close in this area. Mr. Prodi cannot even keep together his own government in Italy. Wolfgang Schüssel maintained the so-called neutrality of Austria, meaning that he is hardly a good representative of Europe, while Mr. Juncker comes from Luxembourg, which is not known for its worldwide influence—something the European Union must inevitably have. Luxembourg is marginally larger in population than the city of Oxford, and little bigger in area than Greater London. And the delicacies of the Italian political system mean that Italy is not known for its global reach, even though it is comparable economically and demographically to France and Britain. That the first president of the European Council should come from one of the biggest Member States has seemingly also been acknowledged by Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, who have both thrown their weight behind Tony Blair.

Finally, Mr. Blair is often criticised as having failed to bring Britain to the heart of Europe during his time in office. On so many levels this is right: he could have done more, not least in bringing Britain into the Schengen zone, and even the Euro. But Mr. Blair does better in other areas. He was instrumental in the widening, deepening and hardening of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as the constitution of the European Security and Defence Policy. Those have been the two ‘growth areas’ of European integration since the latter 1990s, and further developments in these areas underpin many of the provisions in the Treaty of Lisbon. So actually, while the former British prime minister may have failed to convince the British public of the merits of European integration, he has certainly done much for the European cause. And that he has already expressed a keen interest in upgrading European military capabilities means that defence integration would be a key area of concentration under his potential presidency.

So in light of the four points identified above, Tony Blair could be a more attractive candidate than many people might at first realise. I therefore urge all Europeans to support his appointment as the first ‘President of Europe’.

Now we should turn briefly to the presidential race across the Atlantic. From a reading of the recent foreign policy ambitions of each of the major American contenders in Foreign Affairs, John McCain comes out in a very positive light. As he argued in his contribution to the journal:

The United States did not single-handedly win the Cold War; the transatlantic alliance did, in concert with partners around the world. The bonds we share with Europe in terms of history, values, and interests are unique. Unfortunately, they have frayed. As president, one of my top foreign policy priorities will be to revitalise the transatlantic partnership. Americans should welcome the rise of a strong, confident European Union. The future of the transatlantic relationship lies in confronting the challenges of the twenty-first century worldwide: developing a common energy policy, creating a transatlantic common market tying our economies more closely together, and institutionalising our cooperation on issues such as climate change, foreign assistance, and democracy promotion.

This means that Mr. McCain is the only candidate to have explicitly mentioned the necessity of a renewed transatlantic alliance, and for the need of the United States to work with the European Union. As such, he has identified the unilateral tendencies of George W. Bush and his administration as decidedly unhelpful, and he seems to look forward to dealing with Europeans as a united bloc (instead of Britons, French, Germans, and so on). Moreover, his proposals for a global League of Democracies might go some way in meeting the American urge for spreading democracy abroad and the European desire to build strong and effective global multilateral institutions. A Democratic League would integrate the two approaches in a synthesis, leading to better transatlantic relations. And Tony Blair, who also supports both the spread of constitutional government and the need for a vigorous Atlantic Alliance, would be keen to work with Mr. McCain for their mutual realisation.
In their contributions to Foreign Affairs, the other candidates made only brief comments about the European Union. Hillary Clinton made a fleeting remark about the European Union as a model for Africa, while Barack Obama did not even discuss it, other than to say that the European Union is a leading source of pollution. This suggests that their worldviews are either outdated or that their priorities rest elsewhere. John McCain, on the other hand, has explicitly stated that he welcomes ‘the rise of strong, confident European Union’, indicating that he looks forward to working with us as Europeans. Although—as a progressive—I would have sympathies with the domestic agenda of Barack Obama, or even Hillary Clinton (though I am not keen on the establishment of political dynasties), I still believe to some extent in the principle of the national interest. That is to say that rather than standing in solidarity with political allies in foreign countries, we must instead pay closer attention to the way in which foreign leaders might assist our own agenda. The European interest must always come first; hence I urge Europeans to begin thinking about how we can work with the United States under John McCain.

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