There was a lot wrong with how the European Union selected its new leaders, and the two individuals chosen as the faces and voices of Europe may have their defects. But there was not nearly as much wrong with either process or individuals as that very British convergence of Eurosceptics and Euro-idealists would have us believe.
The EU, still a work in progress, is at a particular point in its evolution. The Lisbon Treaty is finally coming into force, after a rocky few years that included a rejected constitution, a repeat Irish referendum and a hold-out Czech President. The new President and High Representative provide a belated answer to the question supposedly posed by Henry Kissinger. Europe now has two phone numbers, which is a considerable improvement on 27.
Nor was the selection process as much of an embarrassment as might have been feared. At the Eurosceptic end of the wish list might have been a dinner that extended into breakfast, then lunch, culminating in a public row from which the national leaders angrily went their separate ways. At the Euro-ideal end of the wish list might have been a formal shortlist, followed by a hustings televised live Europe-wide, followed by a pan-European secret ballot next day. To be blunt about it, this was never an option.
Some variant of the Euro-ideal option might be feasible in future, with Europe's voters becoming directly involved – but not this time. This time the priority was to reach a consensus as smoothly as possible to get the post-Lisbon show on the road. And, despite forecasts of a long weekend, this is what the 27 managed to do – almost before the first course was over.
Nor was the process quite as undemocratic as Euro-idealists might claim. The fact is that the EU is in a bind here. Hold a direct, Europe-wide election, and the principle of national sovereignty is not just eroded, but negated. Publish a shortlist for the top job and a national leader who is in contention risks being accused by his (or her) own voters of betrayal. EU democracy is not as simple as it looks.
On Thursday evening, the choice was made by democratically chosen national leaders. There was, it goes without saying, much bargaining beforehand, and for some this qualifies as a "stitch-up". But the same process could equally be described as horse-trading of the sort routinely conducted after elections in which no party has an overall majority. Many European leaders are well versed in such give-and-take at home, and the same readiness to compromise is what has made the EU function at all.
Of course, the choices made – a Flemish Belgian for President and a British woman for High Representative – are easily dismissed as the pallid result, not just of horse-trading, but of lowest-common-denominator thinking. Yet they also reveal how the 27 see the posts in question. In the case of Herman van Rompuy, they chose someone adept at forging consensus; in the case of Baroness Ashton, someone who quickly made her mark as an effective administrator.
Eurosceptics and Euro-idealists, for their own reasons, would have preferred people with a higher profile. Next time the consensus might be different, but at this stage such a choice could have proved divisive. In all, the first post-Lisbon decisions have not passed off badly. It is now for Mr van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, and the 27 governments, to make the new arrangements work. But they should not be dismissed as boring failures before they have even begun.Reuse content