Undeserved post for a dodgy pillar

UNTIL the beginning of last week, it was widely assumed that the European Union (EU) would be unwise enough, in picking the first permanent president of its council, to offer the job to Tony Blair. Then, on Friday, following a mini-summit in Brussels, the Suddeutsche Zeitung declared that the former British prime minister’s chance of securing the post “is almost zero”.


What went wrong? Or, more accurately, what went right?


Was it the strident advocacy of Gordon Brown and his foreign secretary that raised continental hackles? In Brussels, an apoplectic Brown reportedly got into an argument with Martin Schulz, the German head of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, who accurately pointed out that Blair had kept Britain out of the euro zone and the Schengen open borders agreement, and been divisive over Iraq.


Brown, whose relationship with Blair was notoriously prickly during his tenure as chancellor of the exchequer, argued that the EU risked “permanent irrelevance” if it picked anyone other than Blair. That’s patently nonsensical: not only is Europe unlikely to be ignored under any circumstances, it’s actually more likely to be taken seriously if it is not represented at the highest level by a figure distinguished chiefly by his predilection for mendacity.


David Miliband was on the same track when he declared a couple of weeks earlier that the EU would be hard put to find anyone else with the capacity to stop the traffic in Washington, Beijing or Moscow. That wasn’t particularly convincing either. After all, an escapee from a lunatic asylum who stripped bare on a road outside the White House or the Kremlin – or anywhere else, for that matter – would surely prove equally successful in interrupting the flow of traffic.


Besides, the question inevitably arises: would the EU rather be represented by a traffic-stopper or by someone who carries an iota of credibility?


Miliband himself has been mentioned as a candidate for a potentially more meaningful post: that of the EU’s foreign minister. The proposition is obviously incompatible with what one newspaper headline described as the Blair pitch project, which is probably why Miliband signalled his unavailability, yet left open the possibility of changing his mind once his former boss is unequivocally out of contention.


Some months ago, Miliband made it reasonably clear that were Brown to be jettisoned, he would be willing to replace him as leader of the Labour Party. As things stand, there is little likelihood of a change of leadership ahead of next years parliamentary elections, in which Labour is expected to be subjected to a thorough drubbing – largely on account of Blair’s legacy.


Chances are that Brown will bow out thereafter, even if Labour’s comeuppance is not quite on the scale of the Conservative wipeout in 1997. But the leadership will be something of a poisoned chalice in the immediate aftermath of an electoral disaster, and Miliband would presumably have the opportunity, after five years in a fairly high-profile EU post, to establish himself at the party’s helm before prospects of Labour’s return to power begin to brighten.


For all his flaws – not least his willingness to associate himself with Blair’s legacy rather than that of his own father (the venerable Marxist scholar and sociologist Ralph Miliband, who once decried “the enormous lie” behind America’s “wholesale slaughter” in Vietnam and described Harold Wilson’s support for the US as “the most shameful chapter in the history of the Labour Party”, and who would no doubt have been even more appalled by the Blair years – David Miliband would be a decidedly less offensive choice than Blair as a prominent Briton in Brussels.


Whether the next British government might see it the same way is an open question. Although Margaret Thatcher quite logically designated Blair as an ideal ideological heir long ago, the Conservative Party has lately made it clear to European heads of government that it would be deeply offended by his presidency. This stance might have helped to bury Blair’s chances.


Although it was a profoundly mistaken Nicolas Sarkozy who initially – quite possibly as a consequence of intensive lobbying – nominated Blair as an excellent choice for EU president, there was never any doubt that the crucial vote belonged to the German chancellor. Angela Merkel does not ostensibly find Blair distasteful, but has evidently been persuaded of his inappropriateness for the post.


Silvio Berlusconi’s over-enthusiastic endorsement of Blair may have helped to tile the scales, given that Merkel’s distaste for the Italian leader is hardly a state secret. In fact there’s precious little cause for anyone to perceive him any other way, but Blair found cause for infatuation with Berlusconi. Perhaps he finds all far-right media magnates irresistible: after all, he was always more willing to be influenced by Rupert Murdoch than by the British electorate.


That helps to explain why, at a memorial service last month for Britons who lost their lives in Iraq, the father of one victim rejected Blair’s proffered hand. “I’m not shaking your hand,” he informed the former PM, “it’s got blood on it.” Likewise, at a subsequent appearance before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, a number of other parents of deceased British servicemen were clear in their minds about where the culpability lay.


Perhaps the best argument in support of Blair’s EU candidacy came from George Monbiot, who argued in his column in The Guardian last week that Blair’s unavoidable presence in continental Europe would increase his chances of finding himself in a cell next to that of Radovan Karadzic.


Were that close to a certainty, Monbiot’s stance would undoubtedly be worth supporting. Unfortunately, it’s not. Even more unfortunately, there is still a minuscule chance that Blair could find himself in the coveted chair in Brussels.


That chance should be gone if the EU asks itself the only relevant question in this context: does it wish its public face to be that of a money-grubbing religious fundamentalist whose feckless allegiance to the neocons in Washington qualifies him as a Nuremberg-standard war criminal? 



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