Bye-bye Blair; hello, who?


BRUSSELS — “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger couldn’t have known three decades ago how long and loudly his plaint about the multiheaded bureaucracy would resonate.

The phrase has been repeated in Brussels to the point of becoming cliche while pro-European Union forces have worked to get to where they are today: ready to install a president of the European Union, along with a high representative for foreign affairs, both tasked with making the EU more visible on the world stage.

Now that the new Lisbon Treaty creating these jobs has been ratified by all 27 member states it will come into force Dec. 1. So the race is on to fill the new positions and deliberation is hitting the mainstream, catching up to that which has gone on for years largely behind closed doors.

However, no one’s quite sure what lies on the other side of the finish line for the “winner.” The Lisbon Treaty officially creates the position of president, to be appointed by the EU’s heads of state for a two-and-a-half-year term and preside over summits, but there’s not much of a job description. Whoever is named as the EU’s first president will indelibly define the nature of the presidency.

Initially, there was zest for a strong personality, someone who would not only be picking up the receiver on Kissinger’s desired hotline, but would get his or her own calls answered by other world leaders. There are few European leaders who are recognizable on other continents; Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are not on the job market.

Campaigns are primarily being conducted through surrogates — no one owns up to “running.” But as long as several years ago, and as few as 10 days ago, the person considered to have the best odds was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Since leaving office two years ago, Blair has kept his profile high as the Quartet’s special envoy for the Middle East, he has experience as a head of state and he’s pro-Europe in a sea of U.K. skepticism. Despite widespread disapproval for Blair’s support for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, numerous press articles speculated he could be appointed immediately upon the treaty’s full ratification.

But at the head-of-state summit last week in Brussels, parties on the European left — of which former Labour leader Blair is a member — decided they would prefer to have the position of high representative, effectively ruling out fielding a candidate for the president position as well. (This is part of the very complicated political game of divvying up the top institutional jobs in a grand agreement. The European Commission presidency and European Parliament presidency are both currently held by center-right politicians, so the other major parties, Socialists and Liberals, are looking to exert their influence over the new president and high-representative posts.)

Despite U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband — who is now the likely pick for high representative — spending much of their time in Brussels talking up Blair’s character and capabilities, his hopes basically died there, aided by the conspicuous failure of Sarkozy, who had wobbled in his support, to wholeheartedly try to resuscitate the candidacy.

Anne-Claire Marangoni, an expert in European affairs and diplomacy at the College of Europe, thinks that’s for the best. Blair’s citizenship alone should have ruled him out, she said, saying the same should apply to Miliband.

“The Lisbon Treaty is about enhancing the EU's international stance and Britain has clearly not been the member state which most favored political integration in the field of foreign, security and defense policy,” Marangoni said. Referring to the strong opposition to Blair — see the petition project at, for example — Marangoni said such an appointment would put the brakes on the European project again.

With the early and most glamorous frontrunner deposed, it looks like EU heads of state have decided they can’t risk a high-stature “face of Europe” who might steal away some of their personal influence. “They want political comfort, not political clout,” concluded Giles Merritt, secretary general of Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe, who believes a strong, well-known president would have been in the EU’s best interests.

The list of possible candidates is now filled with politicians most people even in Europe would be hard-pressed to identify: the highly competent and well-regarded but rather bland Luxembourg Prime and Finance Minister Jean-Claude Juncker; Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, said to be campaigning heavily for the job; and — the flavor of this week — Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy, praised for his ability to manage the sometimes bitter divisions between Belgium’s linguistic minorities of Dutch, French and German. “It’s the march of the pygmies, really,” lamented Merritt.

Pascale Joannin, director general of the Robert Schumann Foundation in Paris, has a different problem with the probable candidates — their gender. She suggested that the EU could increase citizen engagement if it better represented half of its population “If you want to have representative institutions, you can’t have just men at the top of the four institutions” (of the commission, parliament, president and high representative), she said.

Joannin sees the new posts as the perfect opportunity to address this imbalance. On Thursday she started a campaign supporting former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga as the EU’s new face. Bringing together an informal coalition of think tanks, women’s groups and NGOs, Joannin founded “A Woman to Head Europe” and saw close to 3,000 people “vote” for Vike-Freiberga in the first 24 hours.

Joannin admitted time is short between the launch of her campaign and a special summit on the posts likely to be called for next week, but she thinks such a strong show of support can have an impact on the leaders’ calculations. The website has ready-made letters to send to each of the 27 member-state governments to make sure they get the message.

But before the EU leaders decide “who,” they have to agree on “what” they want their new president to be.