Between the giant and the pygmy, who will be EU president?


Published: 23 October 2009 09:53 | Changed: 27 October 2009 16:38

If Europe really wants to be a major player on the world stage, it must choose a president who will be taken seriously in Washington, Beijing and Moscow.

By J.L. Heldring

J.L. Heldring is a NRC Handelsblad columnist.During the final days of 1973 the leaders of what was then called the European Community gathered in Copenhagen. The summit produced a declaration about 'European identity'. As can be expected when politicians and civil servants attempt an intellectual exercise, the declaration was a hodgepodge of grandiloquence, shallowness and internal contradictions. It hasn't been heard of since.

'Some Dane'

The Danish foreign minister - Denmark was EC president at the time - was asked to present the declaration to his American colleague Henry Kissinger, who had declared 1973 to be the 'year of Europe'. But by the spring of that year the Arab oil boycott, which targeted the US, the Netherlands and Portugal, had put a strain on trans-Atlantic and European solidarity.

Kissinger was not impressed by the Copenhagen declaration. He asked his Danish visitor - whom he would later remember of 'some Dane' - if he was authorised to negotiate it. He wasn't: any changes would have to approved by a new European summit. Kissinger's interest sank below zero.

What can we learn from this episode? That Europe is only given the time of day in countries like the US if it is represented by someone with authority, preferably from a big country, and not by 'some Dane.' During the 2008 Georgia crisis, Nicolas Sarkozy was able to get through to Russian president Vladimir Putin because he was the president of France, not because he was EU president at the time. A Dutch or Danish EU president would probably not have been as successful.


This is important now that the EU, once the Czech president signs the Lisbon Treaty, has to decide who will be its first fixed president and who will be its foreign minister. As far as the first job is concerned, The Economist wrote on October 10, the choice is down to "the usual Europygmies" and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

One of the Euro-pygmies is The Netherlands' prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whom The Economist described as a 'sober conservative'.

It remains unclear whether Balkenende's name has come up anywhere else than in journalistic circles in The Hague and Brussels. Yes, German chancellor Angela Merkel seems to think he is a good candidate, and Balkenende is reportedly held in higher esteem abroad than in his own country. But if foreign ambassadors in the Hague have reported to their capitals about Balkenende, they surely haven't missed the pervasive criticism of his lack of leadership.

But then it is quite possible than the bigger European countries would much prefer a flunky from a small country to someone with authority who might actually want to exercise it. A president like Blair might just have an idea or two of his own, and be less inclined to comply with the wishes of the Sarkozys, the Merkels or even the Browns of this world.

Roi soleil

Sarkozy, for one, has withdrawn his support for Blair. According to Ben Bot, the former Dutch foreign minister, this means Britain can no longer be expected to support a French candidate either. A German president would still be hard to swallow for France (and a few other countries), which means the road is clear for one or other 'Euro-pygmy'.

The immediate result of this would be the EU will have a hard time becoming a major player on the world stage, which is its stated ambition. But if Europe was really serious about this ambition, it would choose a president who will be taken seriously by China, Russia or the US.

But to have a 'roi soleil' at the head of the EU, as the smaller countries sometimes refer to the new president, is fraught with problems too. The Lisbon Treaty is vague about the president's powers, unlike the new 'EU foreign minister', who will have a considerable budget and his own diplomatic corps. Not too mention the relation between the future president and the president of the European Commission (currently the Portuguese Barroso). Former Belgian foreign minister Karel De Gucht has called it a 'system error' in the Lisbon Treaty.

When Bot recently said on Dutch television that the new president will be "the head, the face of Europe", he quickly added: "Next to Barroso." In other words: Europe will have at least two faces, or a Janus face. This can only lead to more confusion both inside and outside Europe.

Just as important is what Bot said next: "Ultimately the decisions will be taken by the member-states." This means the 'president of Europe' will have to get approval from the 27 member states for every move he makes. It will weaken his position, because nobody wants to negotiate with a henhouse. At that point it no longer matters whether the president of the henhouse is from a big or a small country.

In the end, not that much has changed since 1973: Europe as a political giant is still a pipe dream.