x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Dial tone

The big idea The idea that Tony Blair may be the European Union's first president, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes, reveals the continent's lack of vision.

Tony Blair delivering a speech at the 2002 Labour Party conference in Blackpool, where he defended his decision to follow the US to war in Iraq.
Tony Blair delivering a speech at the 2002 Labour Party conference in Blackpool, where he defended his decision to follow the US to war in Iraq.

The idea that Tony Blair may be the European Union's first president, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes, reveals the continent's lack of vision. Years ago, Henry Kissinger said that he would take "Europe" seriously when "Europe" had a number he could call in a crisis. He meant that although the European Union might be a formidable economic bloc, it had no central political being, no expression of "hard power" in international affairs. Nor does it still, but this may soon change. After various travails, the Lisbon Treaty is likely to be ratified shortly, as it has to be by every member country of the EU in a parliamentary vote or national referendum. The Irish voted against it the first time, but after the sobering experience of a financial crisis worse in that country than most, they went back and voted in favour, and now only the reluctant (or obstreperous) Czechs need to agree.

One of the consequences of Lisbon will be the creation of a new office, the President of the European Union. Such a person does not at present exist (as opposed to the President of the European Commission, an administrative body of officials). And this president might in himself personify the quest, a rather forlorn one so far, for a common European foreign policy. "Europe" might at last speak with one voice and act as a force on the international stage. He might, that's to say, answer the nagging question about what "Europe" really is.

At present the front-runner for the job is Tony Blair, who served as the British prime minister for 10 years until he retired in the summer of 2007. He is the favourite of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and he can count on the support of his old friend Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister (there is an unmistakable affinity between those three men). Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who was less enthusiastic, has reportedly dropped her opposition.

If Blair does become president, he won't necessarily be Kissinger's number to call in a crisis: the post is as likely to be as much decorative as executive. But his appointment would in itself be a most eloquent statement of how Europe sees itself - or at any rate how its rulers see themselves. Blair is much more popular with what the contrarian French politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement calls "the soi-disant elites" in Europe, and of course in Washington, than he is in his own country.

When he left Downing Street he set off on various missions, among them serving as an envoy supposedly bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At that time, the former Conservative party Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said that there was no more unsuitable man alive for the job than Blair, and there are plenty of Europeans who would say the same about "President Tony". One thing he won't be is any kind of equivalent to the President of the United States, but then neither is the European Union an equivalent to the United States. Blair himself once told the Labour party conference that nobody had ever advocated a United States of Europe, which was an example of his evasiveness or his ignorance or both.

Even he might have known that men have been talking and dreaming about a "United States of Europe" since the Italian radical Carlo Cattaneo 150 years ago. The French foreign minister Aristide Briand used the phrase 80 years ago, as did Winston Churchill, in 1930 and again after the war. This was not so surprising. Marx said that when we try to make sense of new events we are like a man learning a new language who instinctively translates back to the language he knows, and the United States was the "language" everyone knew.

In practice, the emergence of "Europe" was much less dramatic than the events of 1776. The European Coal and Steel Community was created in 1951, as a way of binding together France and Germany in particular so that they would never go to war again. This turned into the European Economic Community when the 1957 Treaty of Rome joined Germany, France and Italy with the three "Benelux" countries. Throughout this time, the British were sceptical or even cynical. One London Cabinet minister said in 1951 that, "even if desirable, such a scheme could hardly prove to be workable". Then the British belatedly decided they did want to join, which gave Charles de Gaulle the opportunity for sweet revenge by vetoing their application.

Ten years later, in 1973, the United Kingdom joined at last, but even then the question of Europe was bitterly divisive, not least within the Labour party. By 1983, the party had briefly moved far to the left, dragging most of its members with it, reluctantly or otherwise. One young man standing for Parliament for the first time that year demanded "withdrawal from the EEC, which has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs". He was called Anthony Blair.

By the time he became leader of the Labour party and won the 1997 British election, he had changed his tune, and had persuaded many people that he was a "good European". But his record in practice proved very equivocal. For some of his supporters it was once an article of faith that he would take his country into the single European currency as soon as he became prime minister. More than 12 years later the British pound still stands - or sometimes stumbles - outside the euro.

Not that British prevarication is the real problem. The truth is that the European Union is not, and can never be, an instrument of international action in the way that the United States is. When the President says that a state of war exists and Congress votes to declare war, then the United States is at war and the US Army sets off to fight, even if the Governor of Illinois or the California state legislature do not assent. Does anyone imagine there can be a "European army" which would go to war if the French president or the Bundestag were opposed?

This might seem an abstract or theoretical point, but it was vividly illustrated in practice by none other than Tony Blair. When he backed George W Bush's Iraq war, he gravely ruptured Europe in the process. Although the war was also supported for a time by the leaders (if not the peoples) of Italy and Spain, it was opposed by Gerhard Schroeder, then the German chancellor, and President Jacques Chirac of France.

Just before the invasion, Chirac and Blair met, and the Frenchman reiterated his opposition to the war, making some specific points. Blair and his friend Bush shouldn't imagine that they would be welcomed in Iraq with open arms, and they ought to ask themselves whether, by invading the country, they might not precipitate a civil war. That should have been the "common European policy", but Blair insisted that it wasn't.

Even among the European political class today enthusiasm for Blair is by no means unanimous. The Beirut newspaper that described Blair as "Washington's international gofer" was unquestionably speaking for most in the Arab world, or throughout Asia and Africa, but that is also the view of many Europeans. One cynical explanation for the endorsement of Blair is that Sarkozy sees the presidency as a figurehead and eyes the real prize. Another new post, the "High Representative", will be responsible for foreign and security policy, perhaps the EU's equivalent to a Secretary of State or foreign minister. But if Sarkozy really believes that in any foreseeable future this high personage will really implement a "European policy" he is deluded.

Looking back, whether Blair is the man for this job might seem a transient or trivial question. The French president who grasped the truth was not Sarkozy but de Gaulle. For one thing, de Gaulle believed, from his wartime dealings with Churchill onwards, that England would in the end always follow Washington and would act as an American surrogate inside Europe. Blair's whole career would merely have confirmed that conviction.

More to the point, though deeply committed to European peace and prosperity, de Gaulle never thought there would be a European superstate: he envisioned a "Europe des patries", a strong confederation of independent states which readily pooled their sovereignty for some purposes but not others; more than a free trade area, but decidedly less than a United States of Europe. Nearly 40 years after his death, Charles de Gaulle looks the man who really understood the meaning of Europe in the 21st century. And yet it is hard to see any European leader today with de Gaulle's mixture of vision and realism, least of all one called Tony Blair.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His books include The Controversy of Zion, The Strange Death of Tory England, and Yo, Blair!