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Posts tagged with: Tony Blair

PES candidates for Commission President

Every five years Brussels has a bout of political intrigue. It is the time when a new European Parliament is elected, and connected to that, a new team of European Commissioners chosen. The European Parliament elections are due in May 2014, and with the Commission due to be chosen in the autumn of 2014, speculation in Brussels is already starting about who could be in line for the top positions. I will blog about this issue over the coming few months, but as a point of departure I am going to look at the position of the Party of European Socialists, and what they might do about the Commission.

Why does the PES position matter? Essentially since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the President of the European Commission is to be ‘elected’ by the European Parliament. So if a party wins the EP elections (or at least end up as the largest group) then they should get the Commission President job too. In 2009 the Party of European Socialists did not agree on one candidate for Commission President, and lost the elections anyway. I still doubt the PES’s chances in the election, but they could at least be the first party to try to unify behind a candidate, and have a sort of primary process in place to make the decision about a candidate.

So who are the likely candidates, if the PES can get its act together?

SchulzMartin Schulz [Wikipedia]
Current role: President of the European Parliament
Nationality: German
The clear favourite. Schulz has positioned himself in Brussels as the main spokesperson for the centre left, previously as leader of the S&D Group in the European Parliament, and more recently as President of the European Parliament. His 1970s retro trade union leader style might not appeal to everyone, but he is a professional operator and decent speechmaker. His institutional views that lean towards federalism scare some peripheral Member States and his nationality might count against him, as might the fact that he has never held a position in a national government.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 12.55.21Helle Thorning Schmidt [Wikipedia]
Current role: Prime Minister of Denmark
One of the few partial success stories for the centre left in recent years was the return to power of a centre left coalition in Denmark in 2011. This means that former MEP Thorning’s name is often mentioned in connection with top positions in Brussels. However her government is suffering in the polls only two years into her term, so leaving to the Commission might look like leaving a sinking ship. It is also very hard to place Thorning ideologically – this may or may not be an advantage depending on your view of the Commission. Would be the first female Commission President if successful.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 13.00.26Pascal Lamy [Wikipedia]
Current role: Director-General of the World Trade Organisation
Nationality: French
Lamy would bring considerable experience and gravitas to the role. He is also a former European Commissioner for Trade and comes from the pragmatic side of the French socialists, while his WTO experience would reassure the centre right. He speaks excellent English, is a good communicator, and would bring a calm assurance to the role. His lack of national experience, time away from the EU mainstream, and possibly his age, could count against him. He would however be my personal choice for the job.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 12.56.45Frans Timmermans [Wikipedia]
Current role: Foreign Minister of the Netherlands
Another of the minor successes of the left in recent years has been the return to government in the Netherlands of the Partij van de Arbeid, and Timmermans is one of the most senior politicians from the party in government. His wide experience of foreign affairs and EU politics would be assets, but having only been Foreign Minister since November 2012 means he has even less experience at the very highest level than Thorning. Would he want to leave a national role so soon? His nationality – from a core Eurozone country – would count in his favour.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 15.47.52José Luis Zapatero [Wikipedia]
Former role: Prime Minister of Spain
Spain was one of the great success stories for the centre left in the 2000s, and Zapatero was the symbol of that. Subsequent economic experience there perhaps shows his administration in a different light however. His considerable governmental experience counts in his favour, although his nationality and poor quality spoken English are perhaps against him. His commitment to the European Union while he was Prime Minister was sometimes questioned, not least when he nominated the centre-right Barroso for Commission President in 2009.

Outsiders
Borut Pahor (President of Slovenia), Sergei Stanishev (former Prime Minister of Bulgaria), Wouter Bos (former leader of the Dutch Labour Party), José Sócrates (former Prime Minister of Portugal), Werner Faymann (Chancellor or Austria).

If I’m missing anyone please do suggest names in the comments. And no, Tony Blair is not a viable candidate – that is why he is not listed here.

[UPDATE 27.4.13, 2300 – minor corrections to the Timmermans bio, and Faymann added]

[UPDATE 27.4.13, 2345 – via Twitter, Ronny points out the nomination process]

[UPDATE 1.5.13, 1400 – the best additional suggestion (in comments below) so far is Paul Magnette, chairman of Belgium’s PS. Skilled and clever, albeit rather inexperienced, he might have what it takes]

  Posts about EU top candidates 2014
President of the Commission: EPP, PES, Others | President of the European Council | High Rep for EU Foreign Policy

Image credits – all Creative Commons / Sharealike licensed
Martin Schulz by European Parliament | Helle Thorning Schmidt by Arbeiderpartiet | Pascal Lamy by World Economic Forum | Frans Timmermans by United Nations – Geneva | José Luis Zapatero by Parti Socialiste


Tony Blair isn’t going to get any EU top job. Face it. Move on.

Screen Shot 2012-12-25 at 18.27.12So the old master is back, working his rhetorical magic at a Business for New Europe / Chatham House event in London yesterday. The full text of his speech is here. At one level I welcome Blair’s intervention in the EU ‘debate’ in the UK – he speaks with a determination and passion about European politics, and with a grasp of the realities of the globalised world that no-one else at the high levels of British politics does. I would listen to Blair rather than Ed Miliband talk about the EU any day.

But there is a problem. The moment Blair opens his mouth about the EU so everyone once again speculates about his quest for a return to frontline politics in some sort of EU role. The President of the European Council position (currently held by Herman Van Rompuy) is thought to be more likely to be Blair’s wish, not least because Van Rompuy’s term cannot be extended beyond 2014. President of the European Commission (currently Barroso), or some eventual future merger of both of these jobs, could also theoretically be possible.

Now Blair might indeed want one of these jobs. I don’t know whether he does, but it has never been ruled out by him.

But one thing is very clear to me: there are far too many people in Brussels who absolutely DO NOT want Blair in any of these jobs under any circumstances. There is no way he could ever get any of these positions.

Firstly, Blair divided the EU back in 2003 as a result of the Iraq war. He managed to have Spain and Italy on his side, and France and Germany on the other side. Although the Prime Ministers of those countries have subsequently changed, the memory remains. When it mattered, Blair sided with Bush and the USA. It would be especially unpalatable for a French President to back him as a result of this, particularly one from the left such as Hollande.

Secondly, the party politics do not work in Blair’s favour. The majority of the 27 Member State governments are controlled by the centre right. Now, while many would quibble as to whether Blair is himself anywhere on the left, his party – Labour – nevertheless sits with the centre left (PES and S&D Group) in Brussels. The dominant EPP would go for one of their own for any top position, and I cannot see any miraculous return of the left across the EU in the next 18 months.

Thirdly, Blair is British. OK, he is not so close to the current administration in Westminster, but in the 15 years I have closely been following EU politics I cannot remember a time when attitudes towards the UK were so critical in Brussels. Also don’t discount the problem that the UK is not in the Euro or in Schengen.

So, as I see it, there is absolutely no way Blair is going to get any top EU position. The idea that he could needs to be killed off, and once it is then perhaps he can play a useful role in the UK-EU ‘debate’.


The FT’s imprecise EU vocabulary

In an otherwise good quality article about former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt’s role in determining the EU institutions response to bailouts by Joshua Chaffin there is nevertheless an issue – the terms the FT uses to explain the EU:

Mr Verhofstadt, the energetic and outspoken leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats in the European parliament [my emphasis]

Strictly Verhofstadt is leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group in the European Parliament (ALDE). As fellow FT correspondent Stanley Pignal states on Twitter, the FT is not intended to be for a Brussels bubble audience. Very true. But I would also hope that FT readers would hope to have correct reporting, and I have much higher hopes for the FT’s reporting than I do for any other UK broadsheet – hence this blog entry.

Reading the line above for someone not versed in the basics of European Parliament politics connects him to the Liberal Democrats, the UK party, who are indeed a member of the ALDE group. But Liberal Democrats and ALDE are not the same thing.

OK, maybe this is a minor case, but there are words to the same effect – simpler than ‘ALDE Group’ – that nevertheless would have been more correct: ‘Liberals and Democrats’ or ‘Liberals and Democrats Group’ for example.

However this is not the first time the FT has used such terms – they routinely referred to Blair’s rumoured candidacy for President of the European Council as ‘President of the EU’ – see this piece and all these titles. The Economist notably takes another line – to use the correct terms, and to assume that readers will inform themselves if they don’t understand.


Decontaminating the Labour brand

Red glove - CC / Flickr

Red glove - CC / Flickr

I was rather struck my Mark Thompson’s critique of the Labour Party’s current predicament – “I think Labour activists are in danger of underestimating just how damaged their own party brand already is” were the words he used.

I really do not see it in those terms, and here are some thoughts why.

For a start the main characters that have tainted Labour for the last decade are now off the scene – Blair and Brown. Brown’s own ratings were worse than Labour’s and with the prospect of a new leader on the horizon how bad are things for Labour as whole? Not too bad as far as I can tell.

The fact that some of the other hard-to-like ministers from previous administrations – Hewitt, Hoon, Clarke, Prescott – are off the scene also helps.

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Election reform was not going to happen in the late 1990s, so stop bemoaning things now

Blair - CC / Flickr

Blair - CC / Flickr

As coalition negotiations endure between Tories and Lib Dems there’s much bemoaning the chance to reform the UK’s election system supposedly missed by Tony Blair in the years immediately after 1997.

If only Blair had been bold then, we would not be in the mess we’re in today goes the refrain, a line most stridently defended by staunch Lib Dems like my parents and, interestingly, by Timothy Garton Ash in Die Zeit (end of page 1, in German).

Just think a little about the situation Blair faced in those heady days with a majority of 150+. He knew Labour could win a couple more elections from that point, hence he had no incentive whatsoever to change the system, and indeed a bunch of Labour MPs who would have lost their seats that way had an incentive against reform.

In short Blair had an idea of what was right – election reform – but absolutely no incentive to act upon it. To argue that the late 1990s were a missed chance is to completely ignore how games are played within political parties. Altruism alone does not lead to decisions being taken, at least not in the Labour Party.

Now the game is different. Labour needs reform if it is to have any prospect of power any time soon. So the incentive and the altruistic choice are aligned. OK, making this happen in the middle of an economic crisis and coalition talks is perhaps not too handy, but better late than never, and let’s at least be fair in our appraisal of the past.


We have been at our best when at our boldest – so AV?

Gordon Brown - CC / Flickr

Gordon Brown - CC / Flickr

Two striking phrases appear in Tony Blair’s 2002 Labour Conference speech – the famous “We have been at our best when at our boldest” and a lesser known line “Thanks to the brilliance and vision of Gordon Brown we have succeeded beyond any Labour government“.

Fast forward a little over 7 years, and more than 12 years after Labour’s historic 1997 election victory, and the same Gordon Brown has penned a column in The Guardian where he makes his case for holding a referendum after the election on voting system reform for Westminster. The problem is that the option on the table is the Alternative Vote system – keeping the one MP / one constituency system, but allowing voters to rank candidates. The Electoral Reform Society gives the idea a lukewarm welcome and I’m inclined to agree, but bold this definitely is not – it is at best a compromise. Mark Reckons has more on the issue from a Lib Dem perspective.

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A ‘citizens’ campaign for Mary Robinson starts to roll

Mary Robinson - CC / Flickr

Mary Robinson - CC / Flickr

No sooner have the Irish ratified the Treaty of Lisbon than a campaign starts to try to get an Irish citizen nominated to be President of the European Council – Mary Robinson, former Irish President. If you back her candidacy you can join the Facebook group here – there are more than 1300 members as I write, not bad for a few days of work. More on the issue of a woman for at least one of the three top jobs can be found at Eurosocialist’s blog here.

I’m absolutely in favour of the need for more women in EU top jobs, and Blair’s candidacy makes me rather nervous – Blair at the European Council and Barroso in the Commission will produce only one winner, and it will not be the Portuguese…

But is Mary Robinson the right candidate? She has the right background and standing, and a large number of Irish people I follow on Twitter from across the political spectrum seem to like the idea of her candidacy. Can someone maybe enlighten me as to the reasons why she’s actually good?


Patten and Blair: two more strong non-starters

Chris Patten - CC / Flickr

Chris Patten - CC / Flickr

Following on from my post about Bildt and Fischer, today is the time to look at two other strong candidates for top jobs in the EU, this time both of them Brits – Chris Patten and Tony Blair. I’m prompted to write this post after the FT carried a story that Patten would be “very positive” about the idea of taking the EU Foreign Minister position later this year.

Firstly, Patten. My first reaction was ‘hell, that’s going to really annoy David Cameron’, and secondly ‘isn’t he too old’.

On the first point, Patten, a former Chairman of the Conservative Party, has been causing a few problems for Cameron and the party leadership lately. He was opposed to the idea of the Tories leaving the EPP-ED group in the Parliament, prompting the young turks in the Tory Party to have a go at him. William Hague has already stated he found Patten’s statement “unwise”. So where is all of this coming from? Surely all of this bears the hallmarks of Gordon Brown and scheming in Whitehall; what better way to hammer home the Tories out of the European mainstream message than appointing one of their own to a top EU position, contrary to Cameron’s wishes?

Secondly, does Patten really have the stomach for this? When he stepped down as a European Commissioner in 2004, then aged 60, these were the lines in the BBC story:

The European commissioner, who lost his seat as MP for Bath in 1992, said he planned to retire, taking up writing, broadcasting and do some “serious gardening”.

“This is the last public service job I will do. When I finish it, I will be 60 and I would like to enjoy my sixties as much as I can,” he said.

There’s also an interesting interview with Patten given at the time in the New York Times. Is he the right person to be haring around the world for the next five years?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt he could do the job, and I also have a lot of time and respect for Patten. But somehow I cannot see all of the pieces of the jigsaw falling into place to make this happen.

Tony Blair - CC / Flickr

Tony Blair - CC / Flickr

The second strong candidate for a top EU position, Tony Blair, this time rumoured to want the position as President of the European Council, a job that would be created if the Treaty of Lisbon is ratified. Here the case is much more clear-cut than for Patten. There’s no way politically in the UK that Brown could not be seen to be backing Blair for this job (despite all the bad blood between the two in the past). The problems however are elsewhere. Blair is strong, charismatic, outspoken, and followed the USA to war in Iraq contrary to the wishes of France and Germany. OK, that was in 2003, and Blair still has decent working relationships with some member states, but if Bildt, Fischer or Patten are divisive figures then multiply it by 10 for Blair. CEP Blog has a breakdown on how the voting could work. Yet even after the horrors of the Czech Presidency of the EU and some sort of longing for leadership and coherency in the Justus Lipsius building I cannot see how a consensus for Blair could be achieved.

So I reckon Patten, Blair, Bildt and Fischer are all strong non-starters.

[UPDATE – 6.8.09]
A strong, personal case for Patten is made at Crooked Timber.


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