Blair for the Commission?

Tony Blair (source European Commission)

Sometimes the simplest questions are the best ones. I was asked last week, in response to some newspaper suggestions that Tony Blair was being talked about as a possible president of the European Council (a post created by the Lisbon treaty should it come into force), why he was not interested in becoming president of the European Commission instead?

After, the Commission president is the one with the power. This is the role that controls the legislative agenda, allocates the budget and appoints the other members of the Commission. To be elected to the role requires the approval of the European Parliament, which is the directly-elected representative of the citizens of Europe. (This is a position analogous to that of a prime minister within a member state.)

The president of the European Council, on the other hand, has no legislative role, no budgetary powers, and no right to appoint anybody. The only contact with the European Parliament will be a report after each meeting of the European Council, i.e. four times a year. The chief task of the Council president will be to chair those summits, which is why much thought has turned to finding a low-key fixer such as Paavo Lipponen, former prime minister of Finland, to fill the role.

But away from those summits, the Council president will go round Europe and the world giving speeches, trying to give a shape to European political discussion and a direction to its policies. The democratic mandate for such a task will be slender – the electorate is composed of the 27 heads of government, meeting and voting in secret – but the opportunities considerable. One can see why Tony Blair might be interested in the Council rather than the Commission.

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There are some misapprehensions about the position of president of the European Council being spread around. Let me clear up three of them.

First, the position is NOT president of Europe, nor even president of the EU. If any role within the EU merits that shorthand, it is that of president of the European Commission, but fortunately that position is well-known enough already so as not to need such a misleading additional description.

Secondly, small countries are not under-represented in the supranational positions within the EU (which is what the president of the European Council is). During the life of the EU, the president of the Commission, which is the main supranational post, has been filled by someone from a large country during 35 years and from a small country for 17 years. Given that for most of that time, small countries made up only about a quarter of the population, this is over-representation, not under.

And thirdly, it is wrong to say, as Open Europe does, that the role will be filled by “an ex-leader who has fallen from grace in his or her own country”. The current Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, was the serving Portuguese prime minister when he was appointed to the role: his chief rival for the post, Guy Verhofstat, was the serving prime minister of Belgium. Mr Barroso’s predecessor at the Commission, Romano Prodi, returned to Italy to serve a further term as prime minister there.

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