It’s a long-standing gripe of pro-Europeans that historically Britain has played a poor hand in Europe. Too often disdainful, disengaged or domestically divided, Labour and the Tories have sold the country short. For different reasons, their posturing over Blair’s presidential ambitions is in danger of throwing away another golden opportunity for Britain.
Labour’s push for Blair is wrong on two counts. Firstly, he is simply too soiled for export. His disastrous decision to side with President Bush over the invasion of Iraq was horribly divisive in Europe. All those wounds will be re-opened when Blair faces the Chilcott inquiry into the Iraq war. The vast majority of Europeans who opposed the war will no doubt watch those hearings in bafflement if this man becomes a senior European figure again.
Secondly, David Miliband’s argument that the EU needs someone who will “stop the traffic” in Washington and other big capitals is surprisingly naïve. As Nick Clegg has argued, EU representatives don’t need red carpet and Holywood stardust to get a hearing in Washington, Moscow or Beijing. They need a serious mandate from the member states.
The role of President was envisaged by the drafters of the treaty, and indeed is regarded by most member states as a glorified chairman, taking on the role that is currently carried out by rotating national presidencies. It will be the member states, not the President, who set the strategic agenda for the EU.
After years of institutional wrangling, now is not the time for an x-factor experiment. Of course Europe needs a candidate of authority and intellect, and perhaps a dose of charm. But it is not charisma that counts, but the collective throw-weight of the EU, and that can only be credible when a strong common position is reached. Blair’s expertise in “sofa-government” hardly qualifies him for the level of painstaking negotiation between 27 states that will be required.
For different reasons, the Conservatives also play up the role of President. To keep his lunatic fringe on board Cameron portrays the Lisbon Treaty as a federalist monster. So the Conservatives twist the facts to fit their fantasy that the President will be the leader of “a country called Europe”. As his colleagues did throughout debates on the Treaty, Cameron summons up demons that don’t exist.
The Tory position shows just how far they have gone in burning their bridges to Europe. They cannot lobby against Blair as they have sacrificed their influence in the EPP group of centre-right European parties. They are hamstrung by their opposition to Lisbon – what relevance can you have on an appointment if you disagree in principle with the post?
The real tragedy for British interests is that all this posturing is obscuring the other prize job. Along with a President of the European Council, European leaders must choose a newly-empowered High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Because of Britain’s opt-outs from the Euro and Schengen zones, the UK case for getting the Presidency job is weak in the eyes of some European states. By contrast, Britain is surely a natural choice for the arguably higher profile role of High Representative. Unlike the President, the High Representative will find a large staff and significant levers of power already in place and can hit the ground running.
The High Representative will play a crucial role in overseeing the missions and strategy of the European Security and Defence Policy. As a member of the UN Security Council, a key ally of the United States, and with our history in diplomacy and defence, this powerful post plays to Britain’s strengths. The need to improve Europe’s poor defence and security capabilities is recognised by all, not least the UK with its £35bn defence budget black hole. Only Britain and France have the necessary clout to make this happen.
It’s a no-brainer. This is the post that all three parties should unite behind. In sharp contrast to Blair, either Chris Patten or Paddy Ashdown could quite easily be the right candidate for the right job.
Edward Davey is Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman