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Unholy hunt for an EU president shows the hypocrisy of states

by Kevin Rafferty

HONG KONG — With the signing of the Lisbon Treaty by Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, the leaders of the 27 countries of the disunity known as the European Union are now free to take an important step backward on the tortuous road to give Europe global relevance that matches the size of its combined economies. They will go into an unholy huddle to choose someone who will bear the grandiloquent title of first president of Europe.

At one level, this is a conspiracy and fraud against the 495 million people of Europe; at another, it’s a piece of expensive humbug. The humbuggery has been made dramatic because former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in the wings anxiously awaiting the call back to political stardom as the first president.

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, backs Blair, saying the president needs to be an international heavy hitter who could “stop the traffic” — a silly remark, especially from someone who considers himself an intellectual. If traffic-stopping potential is the requirement, then David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gerard Depardieu, Sean Connery, Bono or almost any other celebrity would be a better choice. In any case, police will stop the traffic in any city regardless of which nonentity is chosen because that’s the way that the system works.

The horse-trading and back-stabbing have already begun. There are two jobs, that of the president, who will serve a 2 1/2- year term, renewable once, and a new foreign supremo, who may be more powerful than the president. But such is the secretive and huggermugger way that the EU goes about its work that no one has a clear view of how the jobs will work.

It is hard to think of a more unprofessional way of making an appointment: no job description, no set of personal or professional qualifications, no deadline for applications, no dates for interview, no opportunity to test the candidates. Any small company or public authority that failed to meet these minimum criteria would be excoriated and, if it was a public body, would risk having its funding reduced or cut off. This is antidemocracy at work, with no open public discussion.

Yet this is the apex body of the EU, as directed by the European member governments. How can anyone take Europe seriously?

This of course is precisely the point. Leaders like France’s Nicolas Sarkozy or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Germany’s Angela Merkel originally saw a President Tony Blair as adding radiance to the idea of Europe — and thus bestowing reflected glory on the national European leaders without taking away their powers.

France, Germany, Italy and Britain all get to sit at the Group of 20. If the EU gets its own additional seat, and Blair gets an extra meeting with Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, that is a double bonus without detracting one iota from the real national powers. At least it’s better than the current situation in which Sweden’s Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, EU president for six months under the rotating system, got a brusque handshake with Obama and a lunch with Vice President Joe Biden.

Blair is a sad case of someone who traded his undoubted talents for the lucrative lure of stardom, making six-figure speeches and espousing good causes. (He should have done more of that when he held political power.)

Blair should have been disqualified over Iraq: If he knew the truth about Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, he was complicit in an unlawful invasion. If he did not know and was hoodwinked by the reports, he was naive and incompetent.

Recently Blair has lost traction for all the wrong reasons — including the fact that smaller countries do not want a big man in the top job because they will lose their leverage. Merkel, a boring but quietly canny operator, seems to have persuaded Sarkozy of the argument of the Dutch and Luxembourg leaders — that the top job should not go to the openly Euroskeptic British, who are not members of the euro currency zone.

If not Blair, the front-runners are a gallery of yawns, including the long-serving prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende (known to the Dutch press as “Harry Potter”), and two ex-prime ministers of Finland. All of them have the most essential ingredient of a successful Eurocrat — they are boring and will not make waves. They might even go unnoticed even when the police have stopped the traffic for them.

This will not do. At the very least, the EU should get candidates to declare themselves openly and present their cases to the European Parliament, where they should also be questioned. It is not the full democratic option, but it is the least that should happen and might make the Parliament itself more relevant.

Does it matter who is EU president? It does if the EU as an entity wants to play a part in the world. Europe likes to boast that it is the biggest economic bloc in the world, with total gross domestic product of about $18 trillion (against $14 trillion in the United States) and accounting for more than 20 percent of global trade. But this Europe is also a myth because the real power is wielded by France, Germany and other individual states.

Peter Mandelson, an arrogant but highly competent minister, demonstrated this when he gave up being EU trade commissioner to go home as Gordon Brown’s “Lord Fixit.”

When other European states accuse Britain of not being part of Europe, they are being more practiced hypocrites: All use Europe to foster their national interests; otherwise Sarkozy and Merkel would be competing for the EU post.

It is a pity that there is no European president capable of trying to mediate for the world between the two empires of the U.S. and China. Global problems like climate change, trade liberalization, economic reform need a vision and plan wider than narrow nationalism.

Perhaps the best to hope for is an EU president who will be a decent chairman and person — Finland’s Martii Ahtisaari — with a foreign supremo who will try to mold a real pan-European policy — Joscha Fischer, Carl Bildt or Chris Patten.

Kevin Rafferty is a journalist specializing in economic development issues. He previously was in charge of Asian coverage for the Financial Times.