It Should Have Been Tony

Passing up Blair in favor of Van what’s-his-name could prove a costly mistake

Opinion | Justin McCauley | February 2010

The recent creation of a permanent President of the European Council could and should have been a monumental step towards further, more meaningful European integration. But it’s not likely.

The appointment of Herman Van Rompuy as president is an act of appeasement and frankly, incompetence. Whatever Van Rompuy’s political skills, the presidency will likely tumble into ineffective irrelevance under his patronage. This is probable for two reasons.

For one, his appointment is yet another indication of the disproportionate level of power that the Benelux countries wield in the EU. This will further champion Belgian-style governance, which thrives on broad, weak coalitions with questionable democratic hallmarks. Two, he is a virtual unknown and relative lightweight politically as far as Europeans – even Belgians – are concerned. But Van Rompuy makes the pan-European umbrella parties happy, and it can be argued that the Benelux governments’ dedication to coalitions, unanimity and balance encapsulates the EU’s core ethos.

The problem is, he wasn’t picked for talent, merit, or even for the best interests of the EU – he was picked because he doesn’t bother anybody. Predictably, the Benelux countries are happy with him; France and Germany are satisfied because he doesn’t interfere with their power politics; Britain, ever Euro-skeptic, remains un-phased. Sadly, the frivolous Van Rompuy doesn’t have the might, presence or reputation to command real authority – the kind it will take to lead a 27-country, aspiring supranational entity.

The bottom line: it should have been Tony Blair. There was a reason his name had been connected with the post since 2002 – he’s the best candidate. Clouded by disappointment over Iraq, Europe has forgotten his singular talents. A 10-year head of government, Blair was indispensable to the peace in Northern Ireland, and created the most effective working relationship with the U.S. in decades, spanning two presidents. He had a talent for maintaining the middle ground, introduced valuable constitutional reforms and pushed through long-stagnant civil rights legislation through Parliament.

More importantly, he eased Britain increasingly into the EU fold, over the inertia of long tradition. In short, he is an indisputable political heavyweight, one who commands consistent, high-profile media attention – something the new EU governance is fatally lacking.

Unfortunately, Blair’s successes are long forgotten and his failures repeatedly illuminated. During the lead-up to the presidential appointment, Europe’s leaders bickered and whined, bemoaning a Blair presidency because of his support for the Iraq War and his close relationship with George W. Bush. Most wanted a leader from a smaller EU country (easier to push around and ignore?).

They got what they asked for. Blair, a powerful international figure, would have factored into Washington and Beijing’s calculations – Van Rompuy won’t. He will likely be pushed around by powerful EU governments and ignored completely by powerful nations the world over. Despite any purported mistakes, people care what Tony Blair does. Most people didn’t even know who Van Rompuy was two months ago – and probably still don’t.

Like so many times in the EU’s history, bureaucratic compromise has been chosen over sound reasoning and a realistic attempt at success.

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