The European Union: a tyranny of no-marks

The problem with ‘our’ new president and foreign minister is not that they are nobodies, but that they are unelected, unaccountable nobodies.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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After weeks of speculation, Thursday evening’s news about who had got the top jobs in the post-Lisbon Treaty European Union couldn’t have been more underwhelming. To be installed as president of the European Council is the 63-year-old prime minister of Belgium, Herman Van Rompuy; working alongside him as high representative for foreign affairs will be somebody called Cathy Ashton. Or Baroness Ashton of Upholland as she has been known since being ennobled in 1999 by then UK prime minister Tony Blair. That’s right: a Belgian unknown outside his home country, and a Brit equally as unknown inside hers. Little wonder the predominant response consisted of one word: ‘Who?’

After the blank looks came the criticism. Giscard D’Estaing, former French president and a trenchant advocate of the European Union, was clearly disappointed by the selection of two apparent nonentities. ‘When the Americans in Philadelphia sought a personality to lead their new state, they chose… the conqueror in the War of Independence as their founding president.’ (1) While a George Washington of Brussels is a little bit beyond the Eurocratic imagination, the argument that there were more worthy, more statesmanlike candidates available to represent the EU’s 27 member states and nearly 500million people has been widely voiced. The main name in the frame being, of course, Tony Blair.

UK foreign secretary David Miliband had been pushing for Blair’s presidency on the basis that he was important enough to ‘stop traffic’: ‘We need someone who, when he or she lands in Beijing or Washington or Moscow, the traffic does need to stop and talks do need to begin at a very, very high level. I think Europe has suffered from the lack of that clarity.’ (2) Miliband was not alone in hailing Blair’s road-congesting powers. In the words of Canada’s National Post, ‘Blair would have established a precedent for a vibrant, high-profile personality, instantly recognisable on the international stage’ (3). The Irish Times argued that ‘the vision Blair offered for the presidency of the council was in line with the bloc’s high aim to stand side-by-side with the great powers in global affairs’ (4).

Ashton’s appointment as foreign minister for the EU has been viewed with particular incredulity. Not least because, even in Britain, where she has apparently sat in the House of Lords for several years, no one has the faintest idea who she is. Columnist Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times was particularly scathing: ‘Lady Ashton is not the best candidate in Europe for the job – she is not even close to the best candidate in Britain. If the EU leaders were determined to have a Brit, there were plenty of other much better qualified people: Chris Patten, Mark Malloch Brown, Paddy Ashdown, Peter Mandelson, Geoff Hoon, Chris Huhne, Kenny Dalglish.’ (5)

Wherever you look, the main complaint is that Van Rompuy and Ashton are no-marks, nobodies, nul point-ers. The newly constituted EU, critics note, deserves a Blair, or someone better than Blair. But this is an argument that accepts what desperately needs to be challenged. Beyond the frustrated vainglory of disappointed Europhiles, for whom all would have been well in the post-Lisbon world if only a big name had got the big job, there is a deeper problem: that of the fundamentally undemocratic institutions of the EU itself.

Simply criticising the Belgian chap and what’s-her-name misses the point. The appointment of a Tony Blair, or even a Nelson Mandela or a George Washington, as president of the European Council might have given the drab-seeming world of trade treaties and endlessly proliferating human rights legislation a bit of political lustre, but it wouldn’t have changed the fact that not one so-called citizen of Europe actually voted for them. To be ruled over by insititutions filled with people to which few have had even the chance to offer their consent – and even when they do, as the Irish found out, dissent will not be tolerated – deprives these institutions of legitimacy. Fame, aura, or whatever the traffic-stopping quality believed to be possessed by the big names mooted, would not have changed this. It was never the candidate that was the problem; it was the role, and the unaccountable set of institutions from which it emerged.

If anything encapsulated the secretive, elite carve-up that is the EU after Lisbon, it was the very process of appointing a president and foreign minister. For weeks rumours abounded about who each national leader favoured. The prime movers jockeyed for position. Brown wanted Blair; German chancellor Angela Merkel wanted Anyone-But-Blair. French president Nikolas Sarkozy sort of wanted Blair, but he also wanted to keep in with Merkel. And so it went on, as each clique at the Court of the EU proffered its own illegitimate heirs to the newly created throne. No doubt calls were made, meetings held, texts sent, and then finally, at a private dinner on Thursday evening, a decision was reached. One that would satisfy everyone, but excite no one. Enter Van Rompuy.

But what is more striking about this whole process of appointment is its freedom from public scrutiny. They really could have chosen George Washington for all the say that we’d have had. It was a behind-closed-doors sham, a product of the covert machinations of national elites, and in particular the French, German and British ones. That the president and foreign minister were appointed, not elected, captures the elitist-bypass of the very people in whose interests Van Rompuy and Ashton are meant to be acting.

To give the Belgian veteran his due, he has at least been elected at some point in his life, if not actually as prime minister. That post came through an invitation at the behest of Prince Albert II, who feared that a financial scandal in 2008 was about to fracture Belgium’s fragile Flemish-Walloon concord. Ashton, however, has never faced the public in Britain, has never once been elected. Rather, hers has been a lifetime of selection, of currying favour and doing right by the right people. From 1983 to 1989 she was director of Business in the Community, a government-inspired organisation set up by key private corporations like IBM and Barclays to stimulate urban regeneration. Moving effortlessly into the world of management consultancy and freelance policy advice, her next significant stop took in a chairmanship of a local Health Authority between 1998 and 2001.

Being a New Labour friend of Brown and Blair certainly helped her rise, and in 1999 she was given a peerage – and more importantly political power. Duly anointed, in 2001 Ashton was made parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Department for Education and Skills. In June 2007 she was appointed leader of the House of Lords in Brown’s first cabinet. While in situ she helped steer the Lisbon Treaty itself, no less, through Britain’s upper house. So when her fellow unelected Labour peer, Lord Mandelson, was summoned back to the UK from his job as EU trade commissioner in autumn 2008, Ashton was an obvious choice. To have risen so high without once having troubled the electorate – any electorate – is staggering. Yet there she is, commanding a staff of 5,000, and taking responsibility for EU international relations and security.

Combining an uncanny knack for landing herself in positions of power with a life-long aversion to democratic processes, Ashton should find herself perfectly at home in her new role on the European Council. For the institutions of the EU provide a space in which decisions can be taken without anything so problematic as public scrutiny. It is all about the closed doors, unseen law-making, and surreptitious deal-striking. For national elites suffering from domestic illegitimacy, due to ever-falling electoral turnout and disappearing party memberships, the EU offers the chance to rule without legitimacy. That professional politickers like Van Rompuy or Ashton, famed for their smooth operations and tactful maneovurings, have gained the big posts is not an error of Blair-fearing judgement. It is the culmination of this, the contemporary EU’s depoliticising raison d’être. The EU is not meant to provide leadership, let alone controversial leaders; rather it is meant to provide a refuge for those national leaders unable to lead. The result is a cast, indeed a caste, of anonymous administrators and bland technocrats.

Whatever set of faces the EU wears, the problem remains. Whether it is the rictus grin of Blair or the egg-head of Rompuy, arbitrary power is arbitrary power. This is the real scandal of Van Rompuy’s and Ashton’s ascent to the peaks of EU governance; not that they are nobodies, but that they are unaccountable, unelected nobodies.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

(1) Baroness Ashton: EU couldn’t make it up, The Times (London), 22 November 2009

(2) Miliband gives Blair strong backing in contest for European presidency, Guardian, 25 October 2009

(3) Herman Van… who?, National Post, 21 November 2009

(4) EU fails to think big with two such low-profile appointments, Irish Times, 21 November 2009

(5) Europe’s computer-dating system malfunctions,, 20 November 2009

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