Historian Simon Schama has a marvellous knack of explaining the big themes of history through the life stories of selected individuals. For example, in his “History of Britain”, he describes the peak and decline of the British empire using the contrasting stories of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, and in the marvellous “The American Future”, he uses the life and career of Montgomery C Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Union armies during the American civil war, to bring together the development of American republican nationalism with its economic ingenuity and its military prowess. Everything you need to know about the victory of freedom in the cold war you can find in the life of Brigadier General Meigs.
In a similar way, the debate about the future of the European Union can be captured in the candidacies of Tony Blair and Jean-Claude Juncker for the post of president of the European Council.
On the one hand, we have a British prime minister who is both famous and controversial. He is undoubtedly a world figure, the kind of person who stops the traffic in the major capital cities of the world. His supporters say he offers a vision and leadership, qualities that the EU lacks right now. If the EU is to get the attention of its own voters and of its partners around the world, it needs to be led by someone who is a born attention-getter.
However, while fame and notoriety may look the same, they actually are rather different. Critics of Mr Blair have plenty to say, too.
He may have been first elected in 1997 on a promise to bring to an end British doubts about the EU, but those doubts are now stronger than ever. The opt-outs built into the Lisbon treaty leave Britain still on the margins of the EU and not in the mainstream. And even Mr Blair’s election-winning prowess is not all it seems: his vote declined from 13.5 million in 1997 to 9.5 million in 2005, a fall of 30 per cent in 8 years. He was saved only by the peculiarities of the First Past The Post electoral system (a system he proposed changing in his 1997 election manifesto, by the way).
So Mr Blair offers leadership and flamboyance, excitement and vision: with him as president of the European Council, the EU would be a more exciting place.
Mr Juncker, on the other hand, offers the opposite approach. He has been a steady, relatively low-key leader of Luxembourg, one of the smallest EU member states. He excites few political passions, but then he does not intend to. What he does do, though, is to reassure partners, fix deals, and reach agreements. He, as president of the European Council, would represent Europe as a place that is quietly getting on and doing things, rather than making a grand fuss but not actually achieving much.
If one thinks about the most significant act of Tony Blair’s time in office, the invasion of Iraq, he tried at first to rally the whole of Europe behind his policy, but when he found that many countries in Europe did not agree, he set about denouncing them rather than seeking unity behind a modified or different policy. Mr Juncker’s supporters suggest that is not the ideal track record for someone who seeks to be a unifier and not a divider. Mr Blair offers more excitement, but perhaps he has excited us enough.
“My overwhelming thought is that the EU and Tony Blair deserve each other.”
“It seems to me that flailing around trying to carve out a role for yourself on the world stage is something both Blair and the EU have been trying to do for several years. And neither have met with huge success.”