It is political appointment season in the European Union. José Manuel Barroso is fighting for a second term as president of the European Commission. Tony Blair, meanwhile, has emerged as the front-runner for the yet-to-be-created job as the first permanent president of the European Council. I can see why some might want Mr Barroso or Mr Blair in those roles. After all, the EU has a history of strange appointments. What I just cannot see is how anybody in their right mind could opt for the two simultaneously.
Mr Blair’s chances look much better than is widely believed. The UK backs him. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, would probably add his support, as would Silvio Berlusconi and José Luis Zapatero, the prime ministers of Italy and Spain. Mr Blair is popular in large parts of central and eastern Europe, and in Europe’s northern and western fringes. There are dissenters but Mr Blair would only require a qualified majority under the Lisbon treaty, which needs to be ratified before this job can exist. If it is, nobody will have a veto here.
But the combination of Mr Blair and Mr Barroso in the EU’s top two positions would be extraordinary. First, they both actively supported the invasion of Iraq, as did Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister who is about to take over as secretary-general of Nato. To say that this combination of European leaders does not truly reflect the diversity of European opinion would be an understatement.
Second – and for me this is a more important argument – Mr Blair is not the kind of politician who can act as a counterbalance to Mr Barroso, who has been unable to fill the EU’s leadership vacuum. Mr Blair, for all his political qualities and purportedly pro-European views, has never been a comfortable operator on the EU stage. The European Council, the grouping of 27 heads of state and government, is a hugely complex political construction that a Metternich or a Talleyrand would struggle to deal with. Mr Blair is not a politician who relishes the nitty-gritty of technical disputes in areas such as fishing quotas.
Nor is he a man who could be relied upon to provide leadership during a European crisis. On a normal day, the council is a well-oiled machine that can run even without politicians. But not so during a big crisis. I wonder what Mr Blair would have done had he been in charge last autumn, when the global financial crisis erupted? In the absence of leadership from the European Commission, the turmoil brought out the worst in European leaders as they withdrew into national, unco-ordinated and often inconsistent policy responses, causing damage to the single European market in the process. This is exactly the situation in which you could expect a politically astute council president to make a difference. Would Mr Blair have really stood up against the eruption of nationalism or would he have accentuated the divisions?
Mr Blair’s undisputed communication skills and his political star qualities are no doubt an asset, but the EU’s leadership problem is not primarily one of communication or perception. It is for real. You need someone in that job willing and capable of banging heads together. Surely, this is not Mr Blair. Who else might fit the bill among Europe’s former centre-left prime ministers? I have heard that Paavo Lipponen, the former prime minister of Finland, has been approached by some of his political friends. He could be a better choice.
Third, the job of council president might be very different from what Mr Blair imagines it to be. It does not currently exist. The Lisbon treaty does not define the role in detail. It will depend greatly on what the successful candidate makes of it. Foreign policy is not an explicit part of the brief: that will be the responsibility of a yet-to-be-appointed High Representative. So if and when someone outside Europe searches for that telephone number, it is not at all clear that it will be Mr Blair’s.
If Mr Blair were to build up unstoppable momentum, where does this leave Mr Barroso? His future lies in the hands of the European Parliament. The centre-right European People’s Party, which backs him, has no majority and depends on the socialists and liberals for votes in support of Mr Barroso. Last week the three parties agreed a complex deal under which the socialists and liberals would vote for Mr Barroso in September in return for some plum jobs. These deals stink to heaven. Even so, many socialists and liberals, and some Christian Democrats, might end up voting against Mr Barroso in the secret ballot – especially if there is talk of Mr Blair becoming president of the European Council. I would expect Mr Barroso to get there in the end. But it might be too close for comfort. Mr Blair’s candidacy is certainly no help.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s we used to tell jokes about a hypothetical European hell. According to one version it is a place where the British and the Germans were in charge of the food, and the Italians in charge of the police. These stereotypes no longer work, in part because northern European cuisine has improved, as has southern European policing.
A Europe presided over by Messrs Barroso and Blair is a modern European hell. Only it is no joke.