We'll be watching you, Mr Van Rompuy
Telegraph UK (Link) (November 20, 2009)
The new "foreign minister" of Europe is British. According to Gordon Brown, that should make us proud. The reality is that Europe does not need a foreign minister, and the person chosen to fill the post, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, is a Labour peer who has never been elected to a political position in her life. As for the new "President of Europe", the Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy, he was hardly better known until he emerged as a front-runner a few weeks ago.
The phrase "a pair of nonentities" is on many lips, and it is easy to understand why. David Miliband recently called for an EU representative who could stop the traffic; she may be a decent and capable individual, but it is hard to imagine Lady Ashton, former chairman of Hertfordshire Health Authority, stopping the traffic in St Albans, let alone Washington. Until her appointment as Trade Commissioner she had no background in foreign policy. No wonder she was not the first choice to fill this post (which a back-room deal had assigned to a Briton). She was not even the second. Or the third. Mr. Miliband did not want the post; neither did Lord Mandelson, while Geoff Hoon was unacceptable to Brussels. At which point Mr. Brown came up with the name of Cathy Ashton. Such is the transparent process by which the "high representative" of 500 million people was chosen.
Some Eurosceptics are comforting themselves with the thought that it is better to have "minnows" in these two posts than charismatic attention-seekers. Mr. Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton are, at heart, local politicians who have been dragged into the limelight. The former was reluctant to take the job of prime minister of Belgium, let alone one that makes him sound like the president of a continent. These functionaries will not exceed their job descriptions, the argument goes. Mr. Van Rompuy will be a slightly harassed chairman of the European Council rather than a chief executive with delusions of grandeur; Lady Ashton will co-ordinate rather than determine European foreign policy. So, unedifying though the past few weeks have been, we have not laid the foundations of a superstate.
There are several things wrong with this argument. For one, Mr. Van Rompuy, coming from a country with an exceedingly fragile concept of national identity, is a convinced federalist: he is a Eurofanatic even by the standards of Brussels. Beneath his modest exterior lurk some utterly crazy ideas, such as the Europe-wide tax on businesses to fund green initiatives that he proposed this week. One has to wonder: what nonsense will he dream up when he is in office? And, even if Mr. Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton make little personal impact, their successors may prove much more ambitious. The EU is becoming more pompous by the day: European Commission offices around the world are being turned into "embassies" staffed by a network of 7,000 diplomats, and the Ruritanian trappings of the posts of president and high representative would perfectly suit a politician with a self-aggrandising federalist agenda. (We should bear in mind that Mr. Van Rompuy's term of office lasts only for two-and-a-half years, and Lady Ashton's for five.)
One consequence of Lady Ashton's elevation is that Britain no longer has a European commissioner with a specific portfolio. William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, has argued that what this country really needed to secure was a top economics job. How right he was; for now we face the prospect of a commissioner from France or Germany holding a new portfolio that covers banking, pensions and financial markets in Europe. This appears to be the "get London" mission � an attempt to wrest supervision of the City of London from the Financial Services Authority and impose meddlesome regulations that drive hedge funds away. Whether the money would actually flow to Europe is doubtful � but a powerful EU financial commissioner hostile to the City could certainly make it an unfriendly place for investors. And that is something that a British prime minister cannot allow to happen.
David Cameron has already promised to assert parliamentary control over the sneaky mechanisms of the Lisbon Treaty that allow further power to be ceded to the EU without a new treaty. How he will achieve this if he is elected remains to be seen: the weapons available to him include a Sovereignty Act protecting the British constitution, and the threat of a veto of the next EU Accession Act (for Croatia) unless Britain is granted exemption from damaging social and employment laws. If Mr. Cameron's critics do not believe these weapons can be used, we hope they underestimate the Tory leader's resourcefulness. We trust that he is working now on a plan to resist any EU assault on the City of London, with support from everyone who cares about the capital's position as one of the world's two great financial centres.
Meanwhile, we have the prospect of two little-known politicians taking up offices that move the EU in the direction of federalism � the opposite direction to that favoured by the British electorate, who have been given no say in the matter. Defenders of the new arrangements argue that, because the president and high representative are answerable to politicians, they strengthen the hand of elected governments as opposed to that of the unelected Commission. But, given that we have just lost our veto power in many areas of legislation, we take that reassurance with a pinch of salt. We shall be watching Mr. Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton closely.