March 25, 2008
Felipe Gonzalez once complained that ex Prime Ministers were a little bit like a Chinese vase: a valuable thing indeed, but one for which nobody really knows where to find a place at home. And only last week a maverick conservative member of the Catalan Parliament gave Jose Maria Aznar the Chinese vase treatment after the former Head of Government explained to the BBC that things in Iraq were going rather well.
If the Lisbon Treaty is finally ratified by all 27 member states, their citizens will be relieved to know that their precious chinoiseries may have a worthy place for the next few years: the brand new office of the President of the Council. But its creation raises a few questions about how power will be distributed among the members of the triumvirate at the top of the EU hierarchy: the President of the Commission, the High Representative (with a reinforced role) and the President of the Council.
A lot will depend of the profile of the first man or woman to take up the job. By choosing one or another candidate, member states will also be sending a message about how strong they want the new office to be. That is why amateur headhunters all around Europe are weighting the pros and cons of potential candidates. The first debate on the merits of Tony Blair has been over the issue of a candidate coming from a country which does not belong to certain key policies like the monetary union. On the one hand it would be awkward to have a President from a member state which does not share one of the most visible European assets, as the euro surely is. But on the other hand, nobody seriously objected to Javier Solana when he was chosen as Secretary General of NATO just because Spain did not belong at the time to its military structure.
And what about the comparative advantages of a candidate coming from smaller or bigger member states? Yes, there are very competent leaders from smaller countries, but the who-is-that-guy question in Medvedev´s or Obama´s mouth can be humiliating for the person and for Europe. On the contrary, if the President comes from a bigger country, the office will have a higher profile but also more chances that he or she will clash with other big fish around the table. Finally, there is the issue of the availability of potential candidates. If we just take a look at Spanish names, José Mª Aznar has not shown any interest at all in the job. And Felipe Gonzalez famously rejected the idea of being President of the European Commission arguing that he was incompatible with Brussels weather. Could twelve long years as a Chinese vase change his mind?
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