Friday, September 25, 2009

Dry kissing

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter ''Harry Potter'' Balkenende (L) is greeted by US President Barack Obama (C) and his wife Michelle Obama (R) as they arrive for a welcome ceremony at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This is not the last time he, HP, is dry kissing...Christian background?.)!

Who will really lead the EU?

José Manuel Durão Barroso, former Portugese prime minister and Christian-democrat, has lobbied successfully. He has been reappointed as president of the European Commission after a majority of (mainly centre-right) members of the European parliament voted for him on last week Wednesday.
What this reappointment means is debatable. But not yet. There is a date of far greater import for the future of Europe and its institutions: October 2 2009. This is the date of the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

If the Irish vote yes this time and the treaty is ratified, this will underline the position in which the president of the EU's executive branch often finds himself when it comes to geopolitics: on the margin.
If Ireland (and the Czech Republic) do vote for the treaty, Europe will get a permanent president: chosen by the heads of government who make up the Council of the European Union. It is this political body which takes the real decisions on the 27-nation union. The Commission president is allowed to sit in on the Council's meetings, which take place at least twice every six months, but not much more than that. The president of the Council will be chosen for a two and a half year term by the heads of governments, with the possibility of an extension of the same term. Unlike now, when a government leader takes on the presidency for six months as a 'sideline' to running his country, the permanent president will have far more opportunity and time to put his mark on European policy.

Once the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, it remains to be seen how much influence on policy the Commission president will retain. But the experience of the past few years indicates this will not be much. When the French president Nicholas Sarkozy was president of the Council of the European Union for six months in 2008, he showed just how much a temporary president can affect the agenda. Certainly if someone like former British prime minister Tony Blair, often mentioned, becomes the first permanent president, he will not fail to make clear just where the power lies. Even if the Commission keeps its right of initiative, the Commissioners will be nothing more than politically appointed top civil servants.

Seen like this, the choice of Barroso is not so strange. Opponents find him opportunistic and either colourless or a chameleon. But a Commission with too much power can only lead to a Europe of clashing presidents. And then the winner is obvious: the one who has the mandate of the heads of government, and not the man or woman chosen by the European parliament.
Which brings us to another reality: member states that claw back power from 'Brussels'. Even more important that the European Council gets a president who serves the interests of European integration on the big themes of our times.


Day Opening - September 25

Swans in the canals of Brugge, Belgium