EU leaders are racking their brains to come up with candidates for the future presidency of the European Council. The job, to be created by the nearly-ratified Lisbon treaty, will replace a system whereby the EU is ’led’ by a different national leader every six months. Instead, the Union will have a full-time consensus builder who will also represent the EU to foreign heads of state, for a maximum five-year term. The man or woman who gets the job is banned from holding national office, but the assumption is that potential incumbents need to have served as a president or prime minister in a past life.
Strangely, suitable candidates are proving elusive, even though the post has the potential to be both prestigious and influential. Of those names that have been touted so far, some – like the former British prime minister, Tony Blair – are divisive figures that would inevitably bring much political baggage to the office. Others – like Jan Peter Balkenende, the current Dutch prime minister – are agreeable to most, but uninspiring. They lack the profile and international standing that is needed if the post is to be more than merely ceremonial.
In early 2008, I tried to imagine the qualities the successful candidate for European Council president should have, in a mock job advert published in CER’s bi-monthly bulletin :
"As the first person to hold this post, you will enjoy enormous scope to shape its future potential. Second-rate candidates need not apply. You should be a formidable communicator, highly capable but not overly assertive. You need to be firm but conciliatory. Modesty would be an asset. Although this position offers prestige and influence, power and perks will be limited. With only a handful of staff and no presidential cavalcade, the job will resemble that of the UN secretary-general rather than that of US president. Beyond your right to assemble us for emergency meetings, your formal powers will be limited. We are counting on your ability to set the agenda and forge consensus through persuasion and quiet charisma."
These are virtuous attributes indeed but, even in the rarefied corps of past and present European leaders, they are hard to find. Moreover, the job appears to require its holder to be a walking paradox : charismatic but modest, highly effective but non-intimidating, a consensus builder but also a decision-maker. Most ex-leaders of national governments would struggle to adjust to the limitations and requirements of such a position. That is one reason why candidates are so scarce.
Hence the member-states would find more suitable candidates if they widened their search beyond former heads of government to heads of international organisations, former European Commissioners with a distinguished record and, perhaps, even prominent figures from the world of business with an international profile. Some potentials might be Dominique Strauss-Kahn, (although it is probably more important that he stay in his current position as head of the IMF), or Dalia Grabyskaite from the current European Commission.
In an ideal world, the most promising candidate from the non-leaders category would probably be Pascal Lamy, the current head of the World Trade Organisation. Judged against the criteria quoted above, Lamy emerges as a front-runner for a number of reasons. First, as the current head of a complex but indispensible organisation that operates by consensus and moves at a slow pace, Lamy could argue that he has done this sort of work before. Second, he has no political baggage of the sort that would identify him as a tool of one particular camp of member-states or another. A French socialist who supports free trade, Lamy would be a prime candidate to bring the Union together on many issues, especially on further steps to hasten economic recovery.
Also, whilst chief of staff for Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission, Lamy was a highly effective consensus builder who managed to thrive amid often spectacular political infighting. That is a quality that would stand him in good stead in the power-sharing triumvirate established by the Lisbon treaty, where the Council President’s responsibilities rub up against those of the president of the European Commission and a newly powerful High Representative for Foreign Policy.
Opponents could argue that Lamy has no foreign policy experience on big picture issues like the Middle East peace process or Iran’s nuclear programme. But trade – along with enlargement – has long been the EU’s most important foreign policy tool, and Lamy is a former EU trade commissioner. Furthermore, rising powers like China or India will sit up and take notice if the head of the WTO were to depart suddenly to take up the European Council job.
I have no idea if Lamy is interested in the EU presidency, or whether he would be willing to leave the WTO were it offered to him. But the member-states will have a bigger, better field of candidates to choose from if they can let go of the idea that the first incumbent - so important to the future success of the position - must first have been a member of their own club.