Wheeling and dealing ahead of the EU summit


Published: 29 October 2009 09:48 | Changed: 29 October 2009 16:46

With the Libson Treaty approaching ratification, the EU needs dynamic and clever people to fill the roles of council president and foreign minister. However, the old habits of tactical manoeuvring by the national leaders risk jeopardising what should be a fresh start for the EU.

By Hans-Jürgen Schlamp for Spiegel


The European bazaar is open for business once again. Hushed conversations are now taking place in government offices in Stockholm, over dinner at Downing Street in London, in the small study of Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and in the splendid quarters of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Europe's political leaders are discussing the top posts to be filled at EU headquarters in Brussels.

Like every five years, a new commission has to be appointed with each 27 member state nominating one commissioner. José Manuel Barroso has already secured his second term as president of the Commission, but he will not be the only face of Europe. A high representative for foreign and security policy will bundle together the previously scattered powers and, as a quasi foreign minister, become the head of the EU's new diplomatic service, an organisation encompassing up to 8,000 positions. And finally, a president of the European Council will lend a face to the EU's key decision-making body. He or she will chair the summit meetings of the member states for a term of up to five years. Until now, the presidency has rotated from country to country every six months, so that hardly anyone knows who happens to be speaking on behalf of Europe at any given time.

It took almost 10 years to gain acceptance for the idea of a European foreign minister and a council president to serve as the key representatives of a new, bigger and more political union. Ten years, in which Europe's politicians had to respond to the scepticism of their citizens, who saw the non-transparent Brussels Eurocracy as a Moloch that was steadily acquiring more power.

Waking up?

The necessary restructuring of the institutions was supposed to make the EU "more democratic, transparent and effective." But the French and the Dutch voted down the original constitution, while the Irish initially rejected its pared-down version, the Lisbon Treaty. It was only through a large number of special provisions and exceptions that the treaty could eventually be made more palatable for European citizens.

Will the eagerly awaited new beginning now succeed? Will the continent, with its half a billion inhabitants, acquire more influence on the global stage once again? Is Europe finally waking up?

Europe must now become "one of the most important players of the 21st century," says Sarkozy, noting that the continent should "make history instead of tolerating it." Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the pro-Europe Robert Schuman Foundation, wants to see a "jolt" pass through Europe. The EU must finally "break away from the state of rigidity" brought on by the years-long conflict over the treaty, says Giuliani.

Doers, problem-solvers and the best minds ought to be in demand right about now. But those are precisely the kinds of people that Europe's powerful heads of state and government are not interested in.

The same old pattern

Whenever a crisis erupted at the EU's doorstep in recent years - such as the five-day war between Russia and Georgia - it was the ambitious national leaders who managed to distinguish themselves as crisis managers. Brussels was left with the role of participant at best.

Will that change now? Probably not. The same forces that have already been partly responsible for crippling the union now threatened to thwart this new beginning. The tactical finessing by national leaders is standing in the way of a strong Europe. A good example is the search for new top personnel, in which the key positions in this beautiful new EU world are being negotiated according to the same old pattern: Support my candidate and I'll help yours, and together we will slaughter the competition.

Dangerously clever, overly courageous or even popular candidates are usually the first to be weeded out. The leaders of the large member states, in particular, have no interest in potential competition in Brussels. They want to see people there who are like Barroso - bland, mediocre, devoid of vision and, therefore, compliant.

The former Portuguese prime minister was initially hoisted into his position because the British were trying to stop the then Belgian prime minister and enthusiastic Europhile Guy Verhofstadt. German chancellor Angela Merkel then backed Barroso for a second term and he would never have succeeded without her support. Now Merkel can now expect payback, for example, in the form of her protege giving his blessing to Germany's plans for Opel, possibly even in the face of objections from his competition commissioner .

Applicants lining up

The chancellor is also playing an important role in the process of filling the new top jobs. Recently her presence has been required in Berlin where she has been shaping her new coalition government. As she has had little time for travel, she has been using her mobile phone more than usual to remain in constant touch with her European counterparts. According to one of them, she calls "several times a week, sometimes even several times a day."

There is a lot to talk about. After all there is a long list of names being discussed for the council presidency. Besides former British prime minister Tony Blair, other politicians interested in chairing the future EU summits include Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzales, former Irish president Mary Robinson and Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

Applicants are also lining up for the position of high representative for foreign and security policy. British foreign secretary DavidMiliband is one of the early favourites. According to Brussels diplomats, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt and Olli Rehn, the Finnish EU commissioner for enlargement, are "extremely interested." Meanwhile, envoys from Paris are sounding the waters to determine whether Sarkozy's chief diplomat, Bernard Kouchner, or his predecessor, Michel Barnier, would encounter resistance.

Ironically, the candidates from Paris could actually fail because of their own president. Sarkozy wants to fill an important economic post in the next commission with one of his own, and even France is not entitled to two slots on the commission.

Blair is not an option

An initial discussion of possible candidates is expected to take place at the end of the week, during the next summit meeting of EU heads of state and government in Brussels on October 29-30. It should then become clearer who is a possibility, and who is not an option at all. The final decisions will be announced at the December summit meeting, at which point the Lisbon Treaty will most likely be in force.

Several, mostly smaller countries have already agreed that Blair is not an option. They argue that he split Europe into two camps in the run-up to the Iraq War. And a politician is "not particularly big," says one Blair opponent, "just because he failed in a particularly big way."

There is also open resistance to Blair within the European Parliament. Several key conservative MEPs representing chancellor Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the parliament have signed an "anti-Blair petition" - something they are hardly likely to have done without checking with their party leadership first.

If the former British prime minister is eliminated as a candidate for the council presidency the chances of Miliband, Blair's fellow Briton and member of the Labour Party, becoming the first EU foreign minister will undoubtedly rise. However, a British EU foreign minister would require a regional and political counterweight in the top job. In that case, someone from a small country, a member of the Schengen Agreement and the euro-zone, would be in greater demand - someone like Juncker.

Miliband and Juncker as a team would not be half bad. But experience with Brussels logic teaches us that the end result will probably be something completely different.

Hans-Jürgen Schlamp has been Spiegel’s Brussels bureau chief since 2005.