Thursday, November 19, 2009

Who speaks for the EU?

Last week the Czech Republic became the last European Union member state to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. The next challenge was for national leaders to fill two key new positions created by the Treaty: a president and a high representative for foreign policy. The choices were made earlier today in Brussels: Belgium Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy will become EU president, and the current EU Trade Commissioner, Britain's Catherine Ashton, will become the face of the EU's foreign policy.

The New York Times article on these choices highlights commentary from those who are disappointed by the low political visibility of both choices. For a long time, Britain's Tony Blair was considered the front-runner for the presidency. However, Blair combines greater international standing with a more controversial political history (including support for the Iraq War), and proved to be unacceptable to a number of member states.

While some disappointment may be understandable, there are reasons to be optimistic too. If one cares about the strength and unity of the EU, it is far from obvious that appointing a strong but intensely controversial person such as Blair to the presidency would have been a good idea.

The history of the European Court of Justice may be instructive here. Few people can identify individual ECJ justices, but almost everyone agrees that it is the most powerful institution in the EU. In contrast, many people can identify Javier Solana, the former NATO Secretary-General who has been the EU's foreign policy czar for about a decade, but few argue that his international standing contributed a lot to the power of his position.

Appointing major international figures to these two new positions would have risked shifting the emphasis from the position to the person, and surely that is the last thing the EU needs.

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