Roland Rudd: If Europe wants to be relevant, it needs an elected president

Many who favour a strong leader are pinning their hopes on Tony Blair

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When Henry Kissinger once quipped: "When I want to call Europe, I cannot find a phone number," he expressed a frustration about the lack of decisive leadership that has sometimes characterised EU affairs – and it's for this same reason that Gordon Brown finds himself constantly flying off to Brussels for meetings with European leaders. Yesterday there was an emergency EU summit about the economic crisis, following a smaller-scale meeting last week in Berlin. Over the coming weeks, he will return to the continent for a further summit in March and for two more in May.

The visits come at a time when the financial crisis has highlighted the importance of European cooperation, and raised questions about how the EU organises itself. There are calls within Europe to create a single permanent presidency in contrast to the present system which has the Council's presidency rotating every six months between member states. Chopping and changing every six months leaves little time to follow through on initiatives, and stretches the bureaucracies of smaller member states to their limits. A permanent figurehead to lead the European Council would provide greater continuity and leadership.

The proposal is not new – it featured in the much-maligned but highly necessary Lisbon Treaty, ratified by 25 of the 27 member states. While the absence of the Treaty has not hampered the EU, in the longer term the institutional reforms it contains would help ensure the smooth and more efficient functioning of the Union.

Observers of Brussels affairs point to the French presidency of the Council in the second half of 2008 as a turning point in the debate. With his dynamic leadership, President Sarkozy projected the necessity of Europe's leadership on the global stage by playing a key role on a number of issues.

First, Sarkozy coordinated an effective European response to the financial crisis. Helped by Gordon Brown, he orchestrated the EU's banking bail-out and created a savings guarantee scheme. Next, he persuaded President Bush to hold the landmark G20 meeting in Washington last November. In December, Sarkozy's skills of persuasion were in full throttle at the European Council summit, when a coordinated fiscal stimulus of €200bn (£178bn) was agreed.

As some member states attempted to dilute the EU's commitments on climate change due to economic pressures, Sarkozy acted swiftly to safeguard them. Furthermore, he cobbled together a deal on the Lisbon Treaty, whereby Ireland, having rejected it, will vote again in October.

Sarkozy also played an instrumental role in flashpoints outside Europe's borders. He led European efforts to resolve the dispute between Russia and Georgia in August, and underlined these diplomatic skills during the Gaza conflict which broke out in late December. In contrast to Sarkozy's robust role, the Czech Presidency displayed a distinct lack of leadership and only managed to confuse by issuing contradictory statements.

Even their eurosceptic President Vaclav Klaus admitted that smaller states face difficulties in running the presidency. In an interview last October, Klaus said: "You know that nobody noticed Slovenia had the presidency in the first half of the year because the country doesn't have the political strength to influence anything. The Czech situation will be similar." In contrast, diplomats struggled to keep pace with the turbo-charged Sarkozy, who, in the words of one retired senior Foreign Office diplomat, "made people think twice about the nature of the EU's presidency." There is a growing appetite amongst both politicians and popular opinion for a permanent, high-profile figure. In fact, one poll last year showed that three-quarters of people surveyed in France, Italy and Spain think the EU presidency should go to a high-profile figure; a view backed by 50 per cent of British people. What's more, many who favour a strong leader are pinning their hopes on Tony Blair.

The Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has done an admirable job of steering the EU through choppy waters, but it is time that the EU Council, which serves the interests of member states, had its own permanent president. In many ways, an effective EU Council President would strengthen the role of nation states, thereby diluting one of the main fears of critics.

As the challenges confronting us become more global in nature, European leadership will be key. If we want the EU to be effective on counteracting the economic downturn, climate change or the latest foreign affairs dispute, we need to equip it with a new president.

Roland Rudd is the chairman of Business for New Europe

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