Now that ratification of Lisbon has moved a big step closer (not only with the Irish yes, but also the news that Czech President Vaclav Klaus is likely to bow to pressure not to hold it up), the idea of Tony Blair being the first permanent President of the European Council is looking a lot more likely. Predictably, a large strand of liberal opinion is furious about this. As an e-petition currently being circulated has it,
In violation of international law, Tony Blair committed his country to a war in Iraq that a large majority of European citizens opposed. This war has claimed hundreds of thousands of victims and displaced millions of refugees. It has been a major factor in today’s profound destabilisation of the Middle East, and has weakened world security. In order to lead his country into war, Mr Blair made systematic use of fabricated evidence and the manipulation of information …
The steps taken by Tony Blair’s government, and his complicity with the Bush administration in the illegal programme of “extraordinary renditions”, have led to an unprecedented decline in civil liberties.
All true. But for all that, Blair is far and away our best option for the job.
Think about it. The issues on which Europe must make an impact over the next five years are global issues – above all climate change, and the impact of multiple sources of turbulence on low income countries. These are issues on which Europe can sometimes be pretty good – but it needs constant prodding. We very nearly didn’t hold the line on our 2020 climate targets. We still haven’t grasped the nettle on ag subsidies. We’re not facing up to tough decisions about energy security. Blair, who manifestly minds about these issues, and is also extremely good at them, would be well placed to do that prodding.
On top of that, there’s the fact that Europe’s been punching well under its weight internationally of late. At the London Summit; at Pittsburgh; in the UNFCCC; on aid volume and delivery; we have not had our shit together. This has been widely noticed, not least by the White House, which actively wants Europe to be better co-ordinated. The only way we will do this, and thus have the progressive influence we want on issues that we mind about, is to raise our game on foreign policy co-ordination. And let’s be clear: Blair is Europe’s best shot at doing that (as William Hague pointed out in January last year).
Most importantly, Blair is the best person to sell Europe’s foreign policy internationally – and in particular where it really counts right now, on Capitol Hill. The US Senate is becoming a highly significant problem on multiple international issues – climate, ag and biofuels, trade and others besides; as I noted a couple of weeks back, Europe is only just starting to realise that having Obama in the White House doesn’t necessarily get us that far.
Blair is one of very, very few – I can’t actually think of any others – Europeans who excel at bringing the internationalist perspective to the US political class with charm and persuasion, in the same way that Kevin Rudd can woo the Chinese. Remember the kind of reception Blair got when he addressed Congress in 2003. Then ask yourself: can you see Jean-Claude Juncker managing this?
Which leaves the question of Iraq, renditions and the war on terror. Progressives are right to be incandescent about these issues. But we should ask ourselves: would having Blair at the helm of Europe lead to War on Terror Episode II? Hardly. It was always the US that called the shots on this (as progressives never tired of pointing out when they called Blair Bush’s ‘poodle’), and with Obama in charge, that era is closed. The debate now is over whether Europe will even stay in Afghanistan – not whether to invade anywhere else.
To be very stark, the choice progressives now face is whether they want to be right, or to be effective. In other circumstances, perhaps it would be more important to be in the right. But these are not normal times. Time is running out on climate change. So progressives should hold their noses if they have to- but they should back Blair for the Presidency of Europe.