Blair for President

Categories: United Nations

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By Denis MacShane | NEWSWEEK 

Published Oct 24, 2009 

From the magazine issue dated Nov 2, 2009 

Like his mentor Bill Clinton, tony Blair is poised to become the comeback kid of his generation. Europe’s chattering class is currently buzzing with speculation that the former British prime minister is about to emerge from semiretirement to become president of the European Union Council. The new post, created by the Lisbon Treaty, will preside over meetings of Europe’s elected leaders, where all the EU’s real decisions get made. Assuming the treaty gets ratified—Czech President Václav Klaus is the last holdout—Europe’s 27 prime ministers, presidents, and chancellors will soon have to pick a person to speak in their name. And the odds favor Blair.

This is not a traditional contest for a big international job. Everyone knows Blair’s qualities and faults. But almost everyone also recognizes that he can put Europe on the world map in a way that no Brussels Eurocrat has ever managed.

That doesn’t guarantee his chances, however. Blair insists he’s not formally a candidate for a post that, after all, doesn’t even exist yet (it’s waiting for the Lisbon Treaty to come into force). But EU leaders are planning a mid-November conclave to select someone nonetheless, and also to fill the new post of EU foreign minister (or high representative, as the job will be called in EU jargon). Plenty of horse trading will ensue. But if Europe chooses a bland, barely known former national leader for its first true president, the continent and the rest of the world will roll over in boredom and promptly ignore him or her. Thus Gordon Brown (privately) and Silvio Berlusconi (publicly) are vigorously pushing Blair forward, even as a furious anti-Blair campaign has gotten underway.

A Stop Blair Web site has already collected 38,000 signatures, and Britain’s Tories are leading the charge to block him. This Conservative opposition is somewhat surprising, for when Blair’s name was first floated this summer, party leader David Cameron let it be known he was comfortable with the prospect. Blair is a fierce defender of London’s battered financial sector and a strong defender of the Atlantic alliance—two causes dear to the Conservatives’ hearts. So Tory Tony should present no problems for a putative Prime Minister Cameron. Like-minded European leaders, such as the center-right Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, also support him. The problem seems to be with Cameron’s No. 2, William Hague, who leads the popular anti-EU faction in the Conservative Party and has spent recent weeks denouncing the prospect of a President Blair. Hague fears his selection would mean the continuation of Labourism by other means. Hague even convened a meeting of EU ambassadors in London recently to lecture them on why Blair shouldn’t be supported.

Hague isn’t alone in his animosity: Blair’s right-wing, Europhobic opposition has found strange bedfellows on Europe’s anti-American left, which cannot forgive him for being one of the architects of the Iraq War. Europe’s socialists also resent him for winning three elections by explicitly rejecting Old Labour’s socialist statist shibboleths—principles to which many other left-wing parties remain loyal.

Rounding out the anti-Tony coalition are old European grandees like former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who craves the post for himself, and Romano Prodi, Italy’s ex–prime minister and ex-president of the EU Commission. These two have begun huffing and puffing that Blair shouldn’t be allowed to be president because Britain doesn’t even use the euro or participate in the Schengen zone, which allows EU citizens to drive across frontiers without passport checks.

They have a point; Britain has long stood somewhat apart. But Blair also did the EU a favor by never holding a referendum on the euro in the United Kingdom, for, as in Sweden, that vote would have resulted in a resounding no, and such outcomes have set back the cause of European integration in the past. Though it’s true that Britain does perform modest checks on EU citizens at its airports, once inside the country they actually find it much easier to get jobs, rent homes, and enjoy the free National Health Service than is the case in most other EU states. So Blair’s European credentials are solid. If he seemed to spurn the Union in trivial ways, it’s worth pointing out that Britain under him was the second-biggest net contributor to the EU budget—no small matter.

Whatever the merits of his candidacy, all this sound and fury may ultimately count for little, for the choice of president will be made by Merkel, Sarkozy, and their fellow leaders, and likely on a highly personal basis. Other names are being kicked about, but those candidates all have drawbacks: they either also signed on to the Iraq invasion, or they’re now on the Kremlin’s payroll, or they lack Blair’s fluent French, which counts for a lot in Southern Europe, where it often functions as a second language. Blair, moreover, remains popular in Eastern Europe as the champion of EU and NATO expansion.

A bigger worry comes from the undefined nature of the job. Unlike the EU foreign minister, who will have an €8 billion budget and offices in most capitals but little room for independent policymaking, the post of EU president will be shaped by the first person who holds it. Here Blair offers a big advantage: he’ll bring with him the vision thing that Europe often lacks. Limiting himself to just a few major interventions a year, Blair could speak for Europe at a global level. He could use the post as a bully pulpit and help the EU regain the enthusiasm that was generated 25 years ago when Jacques Delors worked with Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand to create the single market, launch the euro, and thus transform the old, cozy European Economic Community into something bigger and much more meaningful.

The biggest question is probably for Blair himself: does he really want to quit the lecture circuit, where he can currently earn $100,000 for a single speech? Or his job trying to promote economic development for the Palestinians? The answer is likely yes. Blair has spent his whole life in public service, turning down more lucrative options as a young man to spend years in opposition before finally winning power. Now openly a Catholic, he also seems impelled by a moral sense of duty, even if his particular choices sometimes outrage other moralists. Contrary to the attacks of his leftist critics, Blair actually increased social justice in Britain during his terms as prime minister with his tax-and-spend policies. His passion for Europe also informed his time in office, even if he never managed to sell the EU to the British public. Meanwhile, Blair has watched his friend Bill Clinton fade into policy irrelevance after stepping down. Now Blair has a rare chance to avoid that fate, and he seems sure to take it—so long as European leaders cooperate by thinking big instead of acting small. To make the job work, Europe’s elected leaders are also going to have to share the limelight. But if anyone can persuade them to, it’s President Blair.

MacShane is a Labour M.P., a former U.K. minister for Europe, and the author, most recently, of Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism.

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