Now all of Europe is governed by a Kremlin

With the appointment of its new president, the EU abandoned even the sham of democratic legitimacy.

Bruno Waterfield

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Behind closed doors, in conditions of utmost secrecy, two of the highest jobs in European public office were stitched up on the basis of lowest-common-denominator expediency rather than merit. The decision, taken in a conclave of European leaders on 19 November, marks an important stage in the evolution of institutions, a statecraft and political method that have entirely dispensed with any reference or accountability to the public.

Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister, and Lady Ashton, a serial appointee from the UK who has never been elected to public office, embody the spirit of an inward-looking and defensive European political elite that has given up leading or representing their own societies on either the domestic or world stage. They are both anti-political leaders, in the sense that neither has earned their high public offices through democratic struggle. In fact, quite the opposite is the case.

Van Rompuy – an eccentric haiku-writing but highly traditionalist Christian Democrat – is a shrewd operator who disguises his ruthlessness and steady political climb behind a quirky literary persona and dishonest protestations that he never wanted to be either Belgium’s prime minister or the EU’s new president in the first place (1). He became prime minister not as the result of a general election in Belgium but by royal appointment by King Albert II, after a financial and judicial scandal had caused the collapse of Yves Leterme’s resented government (he is now tipped to come back as Van Rompuy’s replacement).

Van Rompuy’s low-key European federalism, a default political position in Belgium’s elite, has quickly got the chauvinistic British eurosceptic tabloids fizzing and frothing (2). But it is not his mild dreams of a European ‘superstate’ that are the problem. Six months before becoming Belgium’s prime minister, in April 2008, he abused his position as speaker of the Belgian parliament to cancel a politically inconvenient debate (3). Opposition MPs have alleged that to make doubly sure that the debate would be silenced he had officials change the locks on the plenary chamber so deputies could not get into their own parliament. The tactic was described as a ‘coup d’etat’. His humbug protests that leadership has been thrust upon him, and his dubious democratic pedigree, mark him out as the kind of anti-political leader that is well qualified for the EU’s highest office.

Perhaps the most astonishing development has been the rise of Ashton to the post of high representative, a job which under the EU Constitution was titled European foreign minister. Her appointment is a graphic illustration of New Labour’s political decay, Britain’s vanguard European role in anti-democratic practices, and the increasingly inward focus of the British political class.

Ashton’s meteoric rise from CND and Labour activism via serial quango appointments to EU foreign minister in less than a decade reveals the extent to which bureaucratic manoeuvres and expediency have elbowed elections, democratic and public life out of politics. Ashton’s appointment has no political or personal merit. She has no reputation in, or knowledge of, political life or foreign affairs, and has never fought a democratic election.

Ashton’s eight-year journey from Hertfordshire Health Authority chairman to EU foreign minister illustrates that the EU is not the federal superstate of myth, but is rather the continuation of national institutions and practices at the European level. It is telling that Ashton’s springboard to European office was the House of Lords. Labour – which once pledged to abolish this unelected political and legislative body – has instead leaned on it more and more. Ashton was elevated as life peer by Tony Blair in 1999 and first became a junior minister in 2001. Gordon Brown gave her a job in his first Cabinet, as leader of the House of Lords, as the government reached new heights of unpopularity and as New Labour’s leadership cadres became ever more exhausted and riven by self destructive, careerist in-fighting.

Ashton’s most significant political achievement, appropriately enough, was to rush the Lisbon Treaty (which created her foreign minister post) through the Lords after the Irish had rejected it in June 2008, snuffing out any hope of a British referendum on the treaty.

In October 2008, she replaced Peter Mandelson, who was recalled from his job as European Commissioner for trade to the House of Lords and a leading post in Brown’s Cabinet. Ashton took over Mandelson’s role in Europe, and Labour officials soon started to talk up David Miliband, Brown’s foreign secretary, as the ideal candidate for the post of European foreign minister.

However, Miliband decided, in early November this year, that his destiny lay as future leader of the Labour Party; he said he wanted to ‘put Britain first’. This was despite his earlier enthusiasm for the EU job, and many months of behind-closed-doors attempts to manoeuvre him into the role. ‘He would have been brilliant and a lot of people who had supported his cause were feeling very let down. It is a massive missed political opportunity’, said a British source. ‘I hope he does not wake up regretting it in six months’ time. He could have had so much more impact in this job than as a future leader of the British opposition.’ (4)

Miliband’s bottling out left Brown in an awkward position. Who would be Britain’s candidate for the position of EU foreign minister? The issue was settled at a meeting of European Socialists on 19 November. ‘They wanted to know why Gordon was so coy and where, they asked, was Mr Miliband, the man who they wanted for the job’, said someone present at the meeting. ‘If Miliband wasn’t available, why not Lord Mandelson, they asked.’ (5) Brown had to explain that because of Labour’s troubles at home, both Miliband and Mandelson were needed to fight a difficult General Election campaign for Labour. Instead, he offered them Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary. ‘Hoon was rejected. He was too close to the war in Iraq’, said the source. With all other possibilities exhausted, Brown then suggested Ashton as the fourth and final option.

‘At first people were a bit stunned and made negative comparisons between Ashton and Miliband’, said an official. ‘Then they realised that despite her lack of experience her appointment could be spun as a blow for equality and that the Socialists could take credit for providing the only woman for a top EU job.’ But Brown still had to sell Ashton to other EU leaders, with some governments incredulous at her lack of diplomatic or democratic credentials. One senior French foreign ministry official is said to have commented: ‘Who? You are joking, this must be a trick. Where is Miliband?’

Britain, unable to find a candidate with any political or other merit was left with Ashton, a quangocrat with no foreign affairs experience except for 13 months temping at the European Commission. Her commitment to European office is such that she commutes from St Albans, where she lives, to Brussels.

Those defending her appointment have had to resort to the most reactionary and conservative arguments to justify it. Denis MacShane, writing in the Independent, justified Ashton’s appointment as a ‘by any means necessary’ tactic to deny democracy and to keep New Labour in authority if, as is expected, it loses to the Tories in a General Election next year. ‘At the end of 12 years of Labour government, a key Labour figure has been inserted into the heart of Europe’, he argued. ‘Cathy Ashton will be the continuation of pro-European Blairism by other means.’ (6)

The Guardian got MacShane to explain that it didn’t matter that Ashton had never been elected, since ‘friends say Ashton is grounded because she has never forgotten her Lancashire roots. Her title – Lady Ashton of Upholland – is a tribute to the small town where she grew up.’ This reactionary argument is identical to the one used to defend the hereditary Lords that MacShane’s government abolished in the same year that Ashton was eleveated to the peerage: that is, the important thing is her roots, not her democratic mandate or political outlook. ‘Cathy is a thoroughgoing Lancashire lass who is a product of north-west social democracy’, MacShane told the Guardian (7).

Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP and right-wing pundit, was quick to point out, correctly, the extent to which self-styled liberal lefties had abandoned their progressive past. ‘Every chapter of [the Ashton] story negates the democratic principle. Every page would have had Wilkes and Paine howling about arbitrary government… Opposing such a system doesn’t make you anti-Europe; it makes you pro-democracy. Anyone who believes in representative government should be outraged by what happened on Thursday: a lifelong quangocrat was appointed in secret to a post created by a treaty that we never got the chance to vote for’, he wrote, also in the Guardian. ‘Were the radicals wrong? Are we better off being governed by a self-perpetuating elite? What fools our fathers were if this be true’, he continued (8).

Eight years ago, at Belgium’s Laeken Castle, EU leaders gathered to make a stirring declaration for ‘Europe at a crossroads’. They agreed the text that led to the Lisbon Treaty, via the EU Constitution (which was killed by French and Dutch voters in 2005). At that stage, lip service was still paid to the idea that creating new EU institutions – especially in the area of foreign policy – required democratic accountability. The Laeken Declaration said: ‘[Voters] feel that deals are too often cut out of their sight and they want better democratic scrutiny.’ (9) Speaking to the UK House of Commons three days after Laeken, Tony Blair, then prime minister, said: ‘We now also have the chance to open up the European institutions to greater public scrutiny.’ (10) How different the reality turned out to be.

Mia Doornaert, an expert in the Cabinet of the Belgian foreign ministry and no eurosceptic, described the appointment process of Van Rompuy and Ashton as ‘lamentable’: ‘It was without transparency, after horse trading among government leaders, without anybody knowing who was a candidate and who wasn’t’, she wrote (11). Former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, one of the only public candidates for president (and thus with no chance), compared proceedings to the bad old days of the Soviet Union. She attacked the EU for operating in ‘darkness and behind closed doors’: ‘The European Union should stop working like the former Soviet Union.’ (12)

Miliband, while an undeclared candidate, expressed his irritation at the ‘Kremlinology’ of the media’s efforts to find out what was going on in the appointment process. Kremlinology was the name given to Cold War-era attempts to understand the inner workings of the totalitarian Soviet government. The lack of a public, democratic campaign during Kremlin leadership battles left Western observers to divine internal political dynamics from apparent trivia, such as seating orders at official banquets and the removal of portraits. So it was to be again during the EU appointment process, as journalists tried to peer behind universal public denials of candidacy to find out what the real intentions of individuals were.

Frederik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister and holder of the EU’s current six-month rotating presidency, explained that the secrecy was necessary to protect politicians from their voters. He likened it to ‘sending the signal to the people of your country, I’m on my way to another job. On Monday I’m back again and I didn’t get it but I still love you’. (13) Charlemagne, The Economist’s Brussels correspondent, agreed. ‘The EU top jobs race should be secretive and elitist’, he wrote (14). ‘The bottom line is surely this: if the EU sees any merit in having big, serving figures given these big new jobs, then opacity is the price to pay.’ But just a week later, after the jobs were filled, he mournfully observed: ‘Today’s European leaders have little ambition to use the EU to talk to the world, at least not at the highest level… I fear the two candidates chosen tonight are an example of the lowest common denominator effect. Mr Van Rompuy had not had time to offend any of his fellow leaders. Lady Ashton achieved the job by default (though her supporters insist that she has always been underestimated, and triumphs every time).’ (15)

The EU’s default secrecy is the practice of institutions that feel unable to represent the public, let alone produce leaders of global stature. Public debate allows the merits of alternatives to be discussed. It is more rigorous and it tests policies (and individuals) in the heat of popular opinion. It is politics. Secret conclaves, by contrast, produce anti-political leaders with narrow, one-sided and unimaginative policies based on an unrepresentative outlook.

The EU has emerged as the institutions and practice of a unique form of twenty-first century statecraft based on cooperation between national elites and on the active exclusion of European publics. The defining feature of European-level politics and decision-making is secrecy. It is embodied by the closed door of the secret conclaves. Its emblem is the ‘Limité’ or ‘Restricted’ classification on policy papers. The Lisbon Treaty illustrated the extreme lengths to which Europe’s elites would go to avoid popular votes (16). The appointment of the European leadership roles that Lisbon created shows that EU decision-making is built to provide maximum privacy for political elites and maximum insulation from public pressure and scrutiny. The pretence has finally been dropped. The EU is a public-free zone.

Bruno Waterfield is Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and author of E-Who? Politics Behind Closed Doors, published by the Manifesto Club.

(1) Herman Van Rompuy: the reluctant leader, Telegraph, 19 November 2009

(2) Britain ruled by a Belgian? You must be joking, Daily Express, 18 November2009

(3) Tussenstand: Laat maar komen, die staatsgreep!, De Morgen, 3 May 2008

(4) The sources are from Downing Street and the Foreign Office

(5) Cited in the Daily Telegraph, 21 Nov 2009

(6) Denis MacShane: At last Britain wins a Euro-title, Independent, 21 November 2009

(7) Lady Ashton: Principled, charming … or just plain lucky, Guardian, 21 November 2009

(8) A great EU stitch-up that demeans democracy, Guardian, 20 November 2009

(9) Laeken Declaration (PDF)

(10) Prime minister’s statement to Parliament, 17 December 2001

(11) Rokerige achterkamertjes, De Standaard, 23 November 2009

(12) Latvian candidate for EU President says selection process is ‘Soviet’, Daily Telegraph, 13 November 2009

(13) Reinfeldt walks tightrope in EU names circus, EUobserver, 11 November 2009

(14) The EU top jobs race should be secretive and elitist, Charlemagne’s notebook, Economist, 12 November 2009

(15) What the EU’s new leaders tell us about Europe, Charlemagne’s notebook, Economist, 19 November 2009

(16) See the spiked campaign, For Europe, Against the EU and No Means No! Essays on the Eve of the European Council Meeting

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