Reflections on the appointments of the EU's two top jobs
Conservative Home - November 24th 2009
When I first heard the news that EU leaders had appointed Herman van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton to the two top jobs (semi-permanent EU President and High Representative) created by the Lisbon treaty, I was both astonished and angry. The EU has been pressing for the creation of these posts for the best part of a decade. They were the centrepiece of the Lisbon treaty and its predecessor, the European constitution. We have been browbeaten into accepting the Lisbon treaty and denied the referendum we were promised. And what do EU leaders do? They choose what might be described, to borrow Trotsky’s description of Stalin, two ‘outstanding mediocrities’.
But after some more consideration, I reflected that this may be quite good for the kind of EU we want to help create. For a start, these appointments do nothing to convince me that the EU is serious about enhancing its role on the world stage, which is of course perhaps the key raison d’être of the Lisbon treaty. If there really was a collective will to give the EU serious political clout in foreign affairs and global geo-politics then surely we would have ended up with a heavyweight candidate like Tony Blair, or someone of similar profile and experience, as President of the European Council.
Similarly, there were many vastly more experienced and charismatic candidates than Baroness Ashton but she was considered someone who would not develop an independent power base. Javier Solana, her predecessor who on paper had a much weaker role, had a PhD in physics from a US university i.e. he had studied abroad, was a long-serving Spanish MP and Foreign Minister and finally NATO Secretary-General before he was deemed ready to become High Representative. Baroness Ashton has nothing remotely comparable in terms of her CV!
This appointment means in practice that member states, especially France and Germany, see bilateral relations as the best way to protect their vital interests. That is not to say the EU loses its importance in foreign affairs; it’s simply that neither Sarkozy nor Merkel wanted anyone in either top EU job who would have upstaged them or done anything to undermine their own version of the common foreign policy approach.
Gordon Brown, of course, painted this is a major victory for him and for Britain. The truth is that with an election some six months away he was in no position to start imposing his will on other EU leaders. But the upshot of the summit, which is that member states still retain control of the EU’s foreign policy, should be of great comfort to Conservatives as we contemplate government. David Cameron will be able to take his place as one of the ‘big three’ alongside Sarkozy and Merkel, knowing that ultimately they are as keen to guard their own foreign policy prerogatives as he is to guard Britain’s. One of the great fears that I and others had about the Lisbon treaty was that it would undermine our ability to project our own foreign policy. I believe that fear has now been assuaged.
However an outstanding problem with Baroness Ashton is that as she is so beholden to Prime Minister Brown as a Labour creation she will for the next five years, even after we are elected to government, be on the phone to the Labour leader of the Opposition rather than the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. I also believe EU foreign affairs officials will run circles round her and inevitably she will not be able to stand up to Commission President Barroso, despite her position as vice-president of the Commission, due to her lack of experience.
Finally, I would like to think Baroness Ashton would have the good grace to fall on her sword if we win next year’s election but there is no legal way of enforcing this and I doubt she will give up such a powerful post because of the lack of democratic mandate in the UK. Commissioners often come and go as their national governments change. David Cameron should be allowed to appoint someone from Britain in whom he has confidence.