Friday, November 20, 2009


I am sure that across Europe today, people reading or hearing the news about the new European President and Foreign Affairs minister are wondering who on earth they are. I certainly am.

Now I am not someone who is violently anti-Europe. However, the way in which these posts were decided is exactly what makes Eurosceptics froth at the mouth. The selection of these people was patently undemocratic and chaotic, to the extent that Baroness Catherine Ashton did not even have an acceptance speech prepared.

This is bizarre. How can people chosen in such a way have any claim to legitimately represent Europe?

(The usual defence of the establishment in such cases is to pompously criticise anyone who asks such questions and point out how the winning candidates are utterly suitable for their new posts. If that's the case it begs the question: then why weren't they democratically elected?)

I feel like I have gone back to the Feudal Ages and just been presented with my new Lord and Master (and his Lady).


Arash said...

I would have thought that, as someone who is not wildly keen on the idea of unlimited european integration, you would share my relief that the new President is not someone with a higher political profile, with more political capital, who would be likely to wield more clout in the office, who more people would listen to more often, and who would make the office and therefore ultimately the central european administration more powerful.

Surely giving such an office democratic legitimacy would be very dangerous for the cause of the protection of national sovereignty.

And I'm sure that's more or less what the heads of the nation-states were thinking when they made the choice. As you'd expect from politicians, they chose the person who would threaten them (and the nation-state they represent) the least.

Sean Haffey said...

> Arash

Yes I would rather the EU was smaller than larger.

However, I think the worst solution is to have a large but weak organisation.

If you're going to do something, do it well. This is not happening with the EU, and is one of the reasons that it needs reform.

Craig said...

You're both wrong.
(Well, it's a good way to get you to read the rest!)

Sean's view: Who are these non-entities? I didn't vote for them, neither did anyone reading this. Therefore they're the wrong people for the job.
[If your real gripe was against the process, this post should have been made before the election, not after, and the title should have been "How?" rather than "Who?"]

Arash's view: If you're anti the EU, then you don't want them to be well led or legitimate, since that would give the EU more power.

I'm sympathetic to Arash's line of argument for those not in power. For example, I'd be happy if the BNP and the Communist party were led by obviously idiotic non-entities, thus minimising their vote count and consequent influence.

The argument falls down if the entity in question already has power. For example, I'd be much happier if Mbeki had been less idiotic about HIV/AIDS, and if Karzai had greater legitimacy through an honest election. Idiots and illegitimate power lead to bad policy and sets a terrible example for others.

The EU has power. The president and foreign minister will have power. Therefore, you want them to be as capable as possible. You also want to maximise their legitimacy, for fear of undermining public confidence in Western democracy.

So Arash is wrong.

But so is Sean:

If you're going to do something, do it well. However, capability is not the same thing as celebrity and popularity. Although a direct vote has a theoretical appeal, realistically the EU hasn't reached the level of maturity and cohesion to copy a USA style election, nor is it likely to for some time, if ever.

So let's ask directly: are the candidates capable for the jobs they now hold? By all accounts, yes. The new president's top proven talent is generating constructive dialogue in difficult circumstances, which will be his top duty in his current role. The foreign minister's top talent is negotiation skills, which is again crucial to her role.

So that just leaves legitimacy. Again though, this should not be confused with celebrity. For example, if Tony Blair was president today, he would have been appointed via exactly the same process. Nothing more or less legitimate about the secret negotiations behind closed doors that would have operated.

Therefore, there is no real problem with their lack of celebrity or their capabilities. If there is a problem, it's quite simply about the existence of these roles at all.

Anthony said...

Craig is wrong:
I think it's unfair to say that this article was complaining about lack of celebrity status of the candidates. It seems to me that the process is what was being criticised. The fact that no-one knows who won the election is more a symptom of the problem, than the problem itself.

Sean Haffey said...

In my view, in a democratic society

- we ought to know about who are leaders are before they become leaders
- there ought to be an open debate about getting people to fill the role who are best qualified to do so
- voters should have a reasonably direct role in the selection.

The choice of these people (can you name them?) fails these three tests. It would have been better if

- There had been some campaigning
- they were either voted for directly by Europeans or at least by EU MPs

Sean Haffey said...

Craig's approach is, I'm afraid, based on "Can X do the job?" rather than "Is X the best person to do the job?" and is a recipe for mediocrity. That's the last thing I want for Europe.

Craig said...

So close. But no champagne.

In a democratic society, popular elections are the best way to select political leaders: those who vote on legislation such as MPs and MEPs.

But they are not the best way to select those whose job it is to serve the politicians: technocrats or civil servants, such as central bank governors, chief medical officers... and president of the European Council (note, NOT president of the EU). These are important people, but they are not leaders: they are subservient to the politicians we elect.

As a side-point, the lack of sufficient voter cohesion within the EU means that direct elections are impractical. Therefore such posts should never become leadership posts. Therefore we should all be pleased with the selection of people who will serve their subservient technical duties well, but not take on a leadership role.

Sean Haffey said...

So close. Not actually, not that close.

Whether the person is a politician or a civil servant (or any other employee) you want to try to get the best person for the job. It's clear this process (if that's the right word) had nothing in it to achieve this result.

Your somewhat patronising point about Europeans lacking political coherency ("Don't bother your pretty heads with this: we'll decide") ignores the fact that in the hugely diverse United States they manage to find a way of electing a President. I think with not too much effort, we just might be able to do so also.

Sean Haffey said...

From another online blog ...

"Baroness Ashton - Last week she was unknown in Britain.

Today she is unknown all over Europe."

Craig said...

On the issue of competence:

The only basis for your criticism is a lack of celebrity - you've even repeated the point four times for clarity. Plenty of other technocrats and civil servants lack celebrity, irrespective of their competence. Even if we stay in Britain on the topical issues of swine flu and the credit crunch, how many people can name the Chief Medical Officer or chairman of the FSA?

On the issue of voting:

In the "hugely diverse USA", there is one nation, two major languages, and two political parties. And even graced with these simplicities George Bush Junior made it to the top of the pile. Twice. The EU has 27 nations, at least as many major languages, and enough political parties to make the Weimar Republic look like a model of unity. Even if the voters were all be Mensa, attempting a direct election for a single post in that context would unlikely produce a sensible outcome.

Therefore, electing a civil servant would be:
1) idiotic in principle.
2) an excruciating and monstrously expensive waste of time, when there are better uses for the odd €1bn, and important issues to spend time on.
3) unlikely to produce a more capable civil servant for the post.

And the public - sensibly - doesn't want an election for this post anyway.

On the other hand, the winning candidate might have greater celebrity status by the end of the process. Swings and roundabouts?

Craig said...

PS. You deprived me of an anti-smoking joke by ignoring "close no *champagne*". Sigh.

Craig said...

Wiki is wonderful. See if you can work out which of these EU jobs we're arguing about:

a) "The President of ... is the most powerful office in the European Union, as the head of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union. The President is responsible for allocating portfolios to members of the Commission and can reshuffle or fire them if needed. He determines the Commission's policy agenda and all the legislative proposals it produces."

b) "The President of ... is the person responsible for chairing and driving forward the work of the European Council, the institution which provides political direction to the EU... The President's role will be largely administrative, coordinating the work of the European Council, organising and chairing its meetings, and reporting to the European Parliament after each meeting"

c) "The President of ... presides over the debates and activities of the European Parliament. He or she also represents the Parliament within the EU and internationally. The President's signature is required for enacting most EU laws and the EU budget."

For bonus points, can you name (a), (b) or (c) without cheating?

Sean Haffey said...

I am afraid I have not been clear.

Let's just assume these are political posts for a moment. (After all, Hilary Clinton will now call Lady Whatshername as her opposite number in Europe). In that case, they should be voted for and there should be an election. Instead there was a stitch up over dinner. About as undemocratic as you can get, barring a military coup.

So let's assume that these are civil servant posts. Then you advertise them, get in good headhunters, build a shortlist of people with the right qualities and experience, take them through a few rounds of interviews (and a good deal of scrutiny given their seniority). Instead there was a stitch up over dinner. About as unprofessional as you can get.

As for America: it contains people of at least as many nationalities and cultures as Europe, and probably as many who don't speak English (no, English is not the official language). It has good numbers of pretty much every race in the world. It's diverse in a different way to Europe but it's at least as diverse.