Waiting for the European Washington

Ireland's "Yes" to the Lisbon Treaty has relaunched speculation about the identity of the future President of the European Union. However, writing in Le Monde, Arnaud Leparmentier takes the view that the quest for a leader with the charisma to unite Europe's 27 member states, who are unable to speak with one voice, may well be in vain.

Published on 6 October 2009 at 15:03
Is this the man of Giscard's dreams? Tony Blair, mooted to become the EU's first ever president. (Presseurop)

Taking the stage at the G20 in Pittsburgh: Britain's Gordon Brown vaunts the merits of Keynesian recovery, and attracts the ire of Chancellor Angela Merkel when he suggests that Germany would do well to reduce its trade surplus and increase domestic consumption. Nicolas Sarkozy reiterates a diatribe against bankers, while Italy's Berlusconi repeats his monologue about oil market speculation. Finally, Jan Peter Balkenende representing the Netherlands, which like Spain, has a back seat at the summit, holds forth on a variety of subjects. Europe's member states, which, along with the Commission and the Swedish Presidency of the EU, occupy eight seats at the G20, all appear to be marching to a different tune, which is unlikely to be heard in Washington or Beijing. In view of their lack of impact, the current G20 is little more than a glorified G2, and we might as well leave the management of global affairs to the presidents of the United States and China.

In the wake of the Irish "Yes" to the Lisbon Treaty, are we any closer to the goal of establishing a consensus on important issues, which will allow Europe to exert a major influence on world affairs? That was the dream that inspired Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, when he introduced the provision for a full-time European Council President with a two and a half year mandate to represent the Union. As Mr Giscard d'Estaing put it, "Europe needs to find or invent its own George Washington."

Giving birth to a three-headed monster

Contrary to popular belief, the reorganization outlined in the Lisbon Treaty will not streamline the functioning of the Union, but give birth to a three-headed monster making Europe even more ungovernable. Our future "George Washington" will have to avoid stepping on the toes of the President of the Commission, responsible for trade and budgetary prerogatives, and the High Representative for the Common Foreign Policy, who will have control of the diplomatic service. Even more importantly, none of the major European states are planning to delegate representation of their interests — at the G20, or the moribund G8, the IMF, or the UN Security Council — to any unified European agency.

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Only a charismatic leader could possibly bring together Europe's 27 members whose inability to unite invites comparisons with the city states of ancient Greece or the Italian Renaissance, which in spite of their alliances were fated to remain marginal powers. Now that the EU is hurrying to reappoint the ultra-cautious Commissioner José Manuel Barroso, the chances of finding such a leader appear to be very slim indeed.

Charismatic or ectoplasmic?

The future fixed President of the European Council will not have much room for manoeuvre. Mr. Sarkozy's initial support for former British prime minister Tony Blair may have been motivated by a will to see Europe guided by a strong personality, but his choice of candidate — who is largely seen as a has-been architect of the war in Iraq and the inventor of a failed economic model — attracted much criticism. The French President may now opt to join forces with Angela Merkel, who wants a more discreet presence — less of a European figurehead, and more of a secretary for Europe's governments and heads of state. Some sources have suggested Jan Peter Balkenende — the former Dutch prime minister who can hardly be described as a euro-enthusiast — but a more devoutly European Finnish candidate has also been mentioned.

Apparently, Nicolas Sarkozy intends to offset Europe's weaknesses by developing a carefully nurtured entente with Angela Merkel. Now that London is out of the race, should we accept the contention that he and his German counterpart are now Europe's most charismatic leaders? Gordon Brown is clearly flagging, and his probable successor, the euro-sceptic conservative David Cameron, is not in the running. It is on this basis that Paris and Berlin have moved to strengthen a Franco-German friendship agreement built on the Elysée Treaty, which will be further supplemented by talks between ministers, and formal ceremony to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You might say that this is to be expected, in view of the fact that both leaders adopted a common position at the G20 and are preparing to do the same at the forthcoming conference on climate change.

The myth of Franco-German entente

However, the reality is that Franco-German relations will soon come under severe strain when France's soaring national debt begins to undermine the euro. In spite of the recession, Germany's budget deficit stands at just little over 3% of GDP, a level that France was barely able to attain at the height of the economic boom. There is a growing economic rift between the two countries: in Germany, where the percentage of the budget earmarked for social spending is now lower than it is in the UK, the government is pursuing a strategy to increase productivity. In marked contrast, Mr Sarkozy, who has consistently refused to implement austerity measures, now presides over a state that has seen off competition from Sweden to become the world's champion public spender.

In the field of industry, the Germans aim to pursue independent development initiatives and avoid any further bilateral structures with France. Imperceptibly, both countries are beginning to focus on partners outside Europe. Germany is developing relations with Russia and taking care of its Chinese customers: and at the same time, its Constitutional court has rejected any further European integration. Mr Sarkozy is now downplaying Europe, and establishing alliances on every continent — with Brazil, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and even India.

On this basis, we can conclude that the only certain outcome of Ireland's Yes to the Lisbon treaty will be the resumption of the enlargement process. Croatia has warmly greeted this latest development, and accession talks with Turkey, which have been stalled these last three years, will be able start up again. Notwithstanding Monsieur's Sarkozy's reluctance, without a doubt this is now the only European political project that can be said to be on track.


Tony Blair, an unfancied favourite

The post of President of the European Union, which will have to be filled once the Lisbon Treaty comes into force, is the talk of the town in Brussels and a much discussed issue in other European capitals. The Financial Times reports that even though he is unlikely to garner the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, "Tony Blair increasingly appears to be a favourite in the race, where no official candidates have been announced."

However, the business daily has also identified a number of other possible contenders: Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, who will be backed by Merkel, and the former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen, who is seen as a compromise candidate. Spain's former president of government, Felipe González, who now heads a think tank on Europe's future, could join the running as an outsider.

ABCtakes the view that French Prime Minister François Fillon could be a candidate, but the Spanish daily also notes that Nicolas Sarkozy "would not appreciate having to bow to the authority of his former prime minister at European summits." As for the post of High Representative of the EU, which ABC is convinced "will certainly fall to a left-wing candidate," Germany's outgoing Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, "is probably the best place candidate, even though his opponents claim that he is unable to speak English."

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