30 October 2009

A Bruton rather than a Briton?

I was more than a little startled to read yesterday morning that John Bruton has decided to put his name forward for the Presidency of the European Council, should the Lisbon Treaty be signed into Czech law by Mr Klaus. I just hadn't seen it coming at all. The debate about the Presidency has been annoying me for ages, mainly because people keep referring to it as the European Presidency, when it's nothing of the sort, and because people in England have been getting their knickers in a twist over the prospect of Tony Blair getting the job.

Frankly, I don't know what David Miliband was on about the other day, when he said that Blair would be perfect for this job, as he believed that 'we need somebody who can do more than simply run through the agenda. We need someone who, when he or she lands in Beijing or Washington or Moscow, the traffic does need to stop and talks do need to begin at a very, very high level.'

The Council President's main job is to chair a handful of meetings -- or summits, I suppose -- every year. That's it. I can't really see him being called upon to go and conduct talks at the highest level -- that's surely a job for the President of the Commission, or, more probably, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. But if the President has to be sent in to negotiate, well, does anyone really think someone making a common case for 500 million people who generate more than 30 per cent of the World's GDP is really going to be ignored?

Surprised though I was, I, like Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, think Bruton must have a serious chance of being selected for this role. I think Jan-Peter Balkenende, from the Netherlands, is probably the most likely contender, but I reckon Bruton's got a fair chance.

Let's look at the main names in the frame: Blair, Bruton, and Balkenende, as noted; Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg; Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt; Vaira Vike-Freiberga from Latvia; Austria's Wolfgang Schuessel; Spain's Felipe Gonzalez; and Finland's Martti Ahtisaari.

It seems the Spanish have said that the Socialists are interested in the High Representative role, so it looks as though the symbolically more important Presidency is being ceded to the centre-right; this is hardly surprising given that almost every country in the EU currently has a centre-right government. Now, Blair is hardly on the left in real terms, but he is technically there, so he's surely out of the running for the top job. So too are the more genuinely left wing Gonzalez and Ahtisaari.

That leaves Juncker, Balkenende, Verhofstadt, Schuessel, Vike-Freiberga, and Bruton. They're all from small countries, so won't get anyone's back up, and are all from the centre-right.

Verhofstad will get nixed by the British, because Belgium and the UK can get arsey with each other in European matters, so unless there's a trade-off with Miliband to be High Commissioner, that probably reduces the list to five.

Likewise, Juncker would probably be seen by Britain and the Poles as 'too European' -- he's basically what you'd draw if you were asked to draw a caricature of a Eurocrat -- and will likewise almost certainly be ruled out. It's a shame, as given his years and years of EU experience, and his ability to get things done quietly, he'd be very good, but I think his obvious expertise, experience, and enthusiasm for the European project shall almost certainly hurt him. Four left, so.

Angela Merkel likes Austria's Shuessel, but I think this might be seen as German patronage, and more importantly others will see him as too right wing -- he'd had Haider's party as his junior coalition partners, after all. I have a feeling the socialist Spaniards will have doubts, for starters, and can't see this one flying. I hear he can't speak French either, and if true, that alone could irk Sarkozy; the French can be funny about these things. That leaves three.

Latvia's Vike-Freiberga could be a dark horse, and I'd half like her to get the job, because she'd probably be a reasonable choice and then I could namedrop by telling people that I met her in London a few years back. I doubt she has a real chance, though, as I suspect Germany would block her candidacy, given how pally Germany is with Russia nowadays: the Russians don't like the Baltic states. She was proposed as UN Secretary General a few years ago, and withdrew her candidacy after the Russians made it clear they would oppose any Eastern European Candidate.

Balkenende and Bruton then.

I reckon Balkenende has to be the favourite, not least because he's currently in his fourth stint as Dutch Prime Minister and knows everyone at the table who'll be making this decision. On the other hand, I can't help wondering whether it'd be wise for him to jump ship from the Netherlands at the minute, given the possibility of Geert Wilders and his crowd making further inroads into Dutch politics. What's more, I can't help thinking that the fact that he couldn't persuade the Dutch to vote for the EU Constitution back in 2005 might be held against him. After all, if it's possible -- wrongly -- to argue that Blair denied the British a referendum on the Constitution, imagine what could be said against Balkenende: the Dutch voted against the Constitution and then Balkenende went ahead and ratified a similar treaty anyway. He could look like a personification of the democratic deficit, and that wouldn't do the Union any good.

So what of Bruton? Well, frankly, I think he could be a brilliant compromise candidate that wouldn't pose any difficulties for anyone. To start with, he meets the basic criteria by being a Christian Democrat from a small country that's a member of the Eurozone. Although he's a conservative, his track record of working productively with left-wingers is impressive: his cabinet consisted of him, eight further TDs from Fine Gael, seven Labour TDs, and one TD from the Democratic Left. Despite him being a conservative Catholic it was his government that introduced divorce into Ireland, so he's not too conservative; on the other hand, his largely left-wing government introduced the low corporation tax that played such a huge role in creating the Celtic Tiger, so economic liberals should like him. In short, he's a right winger that doesn't throw his weight around and plays well with others.

What's more, he's deeply pro-European, but I don't think is so much so as to scare the likes of the British and the Poles, in the way that a Benelux candidate might; indeed, having worked closely with Conservative and Labour governments over Northern Ireland, I think he could be someone that British would be very comfortable with. His European credentials are impeccable, though. He was the effective head of the successful campaign to have the Maastricht Treaty ratified in Ireland, despite being in opposition at the time, and as Taoiseach he chaired the European Council and helped lay the foundations of the Euro. After leaving office he served as one of the delegates that drafted the proposed European Constitution -- which was ditched in the end, but which was substantially salvaged via Lisbon -- and has been the EU's ambassador to the United States for the past five years.

That's important too. Being Brussels's man in Washington has given him serious familiarity with America already, and it's worth noting that he addressed Congress back in 1996. Indeed, if the Council President is ever called upon to negotiate with the Americans -- and again, that's not really the President's envisaged role -- then I think he'd do okay. While no Blair, his last few years will have given him useful connections, and being an English speaker he'd come across as less exotic than Juncker, Balkenende, or any of the others. I think an ability to speak the Americans' language could prove a serious advantage, as could the fact that he embodies the responsible phase of the Celtic Tiger rather than the crazy excesses of the Fianna Fáil years.

What puzzles me most about this, though, is that Bruton came forward and nominated himself. writing to the 27 governments to ask to be considered for the job. Cowen has had to shuffle out to support the nomination. This is pretty irregular. It'd be more normal for someone to ask him in an interview -- and an interview would easily be contrived -- whether he would like the Council Presidency, and he'd say that he'd be honoured to be considered, and that he'd relish the challenge of the job blah blah blah, and then the Irish government or another would bring his name up when the heads of government meet in conclave. As it were.

But he came right out with this? Why? He's never come across as an arrogant or a reckless man. Does he know something we don't?

I reckon Balkenende's still the favourite, but it's probably only 60:40.

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