Tony Blair has warned that the structures of the European Union are distant from EU citizens; not exactly headline news, but for the former British prime minister, a situation that can be remedied by the election, by the European citizens, of a European Council president. Speaking in Germany, Blair said that a Europe-wide vote on the position, currently held by Herman Van Rompuy and decided on by EU heads of state as part of their usual institutional wrangling, would help bring the EU closer to its citizens. There have already been similar calls in EU circles for a directly elected president of the European Commission.
It is possible that Blair covets this position for himself; he was mooted in 2009 – although according to the man himself, he didn’t actively seek the position – when Van Rompuy was given his first two-and-a-half year mandate. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, enough for some of those prejudices lingering from his domestic term of office to have subsided; but how many? The Iraq war may be forgiven, and more centre-left governments may be on the scene, but could Europe really be led by a man from a country with an opt-out on the single currency, and whose government, supported by his own Labour Party, are throwing a spanner in the works of the Union’s budget negotiations?
Regardless of the political intentions of Blair and whether he is mistaking recognition for popularity - a flaw in any cross-border European elections – as a European grandee engaging in the European debate at a crucial time, his remarks still hold some weight; even just as departure points for debate.
He may not be breaking new ground, but Blair, like George Soros in the same week, acknowledges the reality of a fracturing Europe, and the need for solidarity. “The euro crisis, however, has turned the EU into something radically different. Member countries are now divided into two classes – creditors and debtors – with the creditors in char,” Soros wrote in an article published on New Europe’s website. Countries like Germany, he says, have now become dominant in European affairs, not by any deliberate policy scheming, but by policy mistakes. He called this the “tragedy of the European Union.” The EU, he said, once the instrument of European unity, is now held together by “grim necessity.”
Blair, too, is thinking about deepening European ties in the name of genuine solidarity, rather than simple need. “If Eurozone structures end up with a Europe that is fundamentally divided politically as well as economically; rather than a Europe with one political settlement that accommodates different levels of integration within it, the EU as we know it will be on a path to break up,” he said. In this, Blair is acknowledging the rift between Eurozone and non-Eurozone members, a current bugbear in ongoing debates about the future of the EU. He says that European and national political structures need to work more closely together to engage citizens.
As an economic union, it is logical that the EU, from an integrationist point of view, needs a coherent economic policy to beat the crisis. Whether or not a strong leader at the top of the council one who is allowed to overshadow the high representative for foreign affairs, can do this is a talking point; but the debate needs to be had. European elections are scheduled for the first half of 2014, not that long away in real terms.
Talk in European circles right now is, rightly, focussed on the budget; after that what next? Tony Blair may not be the answer to our problems, but if those ideas, like those put forward by George Soros, aren’t debated, then the status quo remains.