A Good Day for Europe

Labour Party

So we now have a result.  Mr Van Rompuy was in the end not much of a surprise.  He will, I am sure, do a competent job and be respected by his fellow heads of government.

Cathy Ashton was, it has to be said, less of a surprise to those of us involved in European politics than to many of the pundits back home.  She proved to be an excellent Commissioner.  In addition to her obvious intelligence, Cathy is hardworking and possesses a rare ability to bring people together and achieve consensus.  If you heard her on the Today programme this morning you will know exactly what I mean.  Congratulations Cathy and all the very best in your new role.

Although I made no secret of my support for Tony Blair to be appointed to one of these major posts, I am nevertheless cheered by the outcome.  Although it is certainly a stitch up, it is one which makes sense and will use the talents of both individuals to good effect.  We have one small member state and one of the larger ones, one man and (at last) one woman, one centre-right and one centre-left   We also have a Briton in one of the highest posts.  At last, we will be at the heart of Europe in reality, holding a top post and therefore having to fully engage with the EU agenda.

And this agenda, it is clear, is no longer working to bring about further European integration.  There is little doubt that although the appointment of a  British woman to the High Representative position signals the acceptance that while the EU fully intends to make its presence felt on the world stage, there will be no further significant moves towards integration across the member states.  Europe will undoubtedly grow wider with the accession of more Easter European countries such as Croatia, but no deeper for the foreseeable future.  Whether or not Turkey will be admitted is, of course, another matter.  If Mr Van Rompuy has his way, the answer will be no.

It is a new chapter for all of us, within the EU institutions and the member states.  I just hope my optimism will be justified in the longer term.

Crunch Day for Europe President

Labour Party

This is it.  All will be decided later today or perhaps tomorrow if the deliberations in the European Council of Ministers about the position of President of the Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs continue late into the next day.  We are already hearing stories about participants taking one, two or even three shirts to see them through.  (They are almost all men – hence the shirt question).

Well, will our very own TB make it?  Tony’s chances do seem to have revived during the past two days, but whether he can overcome the “small country” challenge is still not certain.  Some of the tiniest EU states don’t want a large country holding the post as they fear this will smother them.  So we are now seeing an attempt at a classic EU fudge – find the lowest common denominator and go with that regardless of whether or not that is the best and most effective decision for Europe as a whole.

This mindset has led to Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy emerging as the front-runner.  I hardly think Belgium is a shining example of how to run a country.  A population of about 10 million is split into two linguistic groups with three federal regions, a system which is so unworkable that Belgium was recently without a federal government for nearly two years as the various parties were unable to agree on a coalition.

The other two small countries who are realistic contenders aren’t much better.  Peter Balkenende from Holland verges on the Thatcherite.  Luxembourg has, as ever, staked its claim.  Yet can anyone take Jean-Claude Junker seriously when the entire population of Luxembourg is only 488,000.  Yes 488,000 compared to over 60 million in the UK and Germany’s 82.5 million.  I am tempted to use that dreadful Americanism – “give us a break!”

There are two other factors working against our Tony.  Most importantly, the Socialists do not have a majority in the European Council.  The system of qualified majority voting used gives that to the EPP.  Moreover, the Socialist governments do not always all vote the same way.  Just to muddy the waters further, the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament has waged a strong campaign, which some Socialist governments have bought in to, that the Socialists should let the EPP have the President while the Socialists make a concerted bid for the High Representative.

The small country and/or EPP bid for the President position may well be the way it goes today.  I understand that there is everything to play for, and unusually in the EU the result has not been fixed in advance.  Since the Socialists are going for the High Representative, could this be what Tony ends up with?  I gather he may not be averse to the idea.  The job will, after all, be to act as the face of the EU across the whole globe and the post holder will also control the world-wide network of EU missions (embassies).

Crunch time indeed.