Why President Whatsisname and Baroness Who could be the death of the EU dream

Whatever your view of the European Union, one thing is for sure: it has a genius for making life hard for its supporters. Now we are being asked to swallow the surreal farce enacted in Brussels this week, in which two faceless mediocrities unknown to the British electorate were elevated to the grand-sounding positions of President and ‘High Representative’ (ie foreign minister) of almost half a billion people.

Let us linger over their names for a moment. All we know about Herman van Rompuy is that he is Prime Minister of a country the size of Greater London, and that he is a federalist, which very few people on the continent of Europe are, and almost none in Britain.

The most striking thing about him to date is his anonymity. Think of the line-up at international gatherings to come: Obama, Medvedev, Hu Jintao and — well, the other
one. . .what’s his face, the EU guy.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy and foreign minister Baroness Ashton

Double act: EU President Herman Van Rompuy and foreign minister Baroness Ashton are both largely unknown on the global stage

As for the Labour peer Baroness Cathy Ashton, no one has ever had the chance to elect her to anything, since she is a Labour placewoman rewarded for her services to the party by appointment to the House of Lords, then as a commissioner in Brussels.

The truth is that she has been appointed because she is a woman, because she will threaten no one, and because her job as Trade Commissioner, where she succeeded the more substantial Lord Mandelson, will make a juicy plum for someone else.

Gordon Brown said Baroness Ashton’s appointment gave Britain a ‘powerful voice’ at the EU top table. Satire can go no further.

Anticipating criticism that she had no experience or knowledge of foreign affairs, the former quangocrat had the gall to say that she knew all about negotiating, because she had done some of that for the health service.

I am sure Prime Minister Putin, President Hu Jintao and the Taliban will be awed by her credentials. The sorry truth is, Baroness Who and President Whatsisname represent not the peoples of Europe, but the institutional interests of the EU administration, which is a very different thing altogether.

The indecent farce we have witnessed this week is a long way from the high ideals and practical goals underlying the Community’s beginnings. However alienated you feel from the Europe we see today — its tentacular bureaucracy, its growing corruption and distance from the people — you have to respect the motives of the generation, to which Winston Churchill belonged, who were behind it.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Prime Minister Gordon Brown says the appointment of Baroness Cathy Ashton gave Britain a 'powerful voice' at the EU negotiating table

Their aims were to avoid another conflagration of the kind that had claimed so many million lives in two World Wars, and to push forward the reconstruction of a devastated Europe. You only have to recall that the EU grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community of the Fifties to see how practical its aims were at the start. They were not thinking about presidents and placewomen then.

I belong to the succeeding generation. We were too young to remember much about the war, let alone fight in it; we lived in the shadow of the Cold War instead. I am one of those who were solidly behind British membership of the EU.

Young and naïve I may have been, but as a junior diplomat and specialist in communist countries by the age of 25, I had seen something of the world—Soviet Russia, China and East Germany.

My conclusion was that then it was a nasty, unpredictable and dangerous place. I remember the bullying of Britain by Russia during the Wilson period, and saw how easy it was for Moscow to divide the West. So I was enthusiastic about our membership of a group that, along with Nato, helped us coordinate our intelligence and tactics in resisting the Soviet menace.

The benefits were largely economic. These were the early days, before the onset of megalomania, when the original purposes of the EU were still to the fore. And the British were active in shaping things in Brussels. There were no over-promoted Baroness Ashtons then.

Instead, I saw brilliant civil servants; people defending the national interest by hammering out agreements with like-minded nations in Europe to ensure we could stand up for ourselves in the world.

Those were the days, not of permanent institutional change and aggrandisement, of flummery and empire-building, but of hard grind. In a way the EU is a victim of its early successes. Now, the clever folk I used to admire are too often engaged in devising ever more complex top-heavy structures to bolster their bureaucratic powers, rather than the interests of the EU’s member peoples.

The effect has been to blind us, by the sheer complexity of their procedures, to the loss of national sovereignty involved. What matters today is not the people of Europe, but something called ‘the European project’.

Indeed, we are reaching the point where, like the most reactionary monarchies, the EU no longer exists for its humble subjects at all, it exists largely for itself. That is why the Lisbon Treaty — and above all the new presidency and foreign ministry — are so offensive.

The EU today is a bloated, arrogant organisation, deaf to the aspirations of its member peoples. Just witness how the new president was getting above himself even before he was appointed.

At a time when our belts are to be tightened till we squeak, this unknown Belgian came along and said what we need is a new Euro tax. Where would the proceeds go? I think I know. They would help pay for a whole new tier of Eurodiplomats and their escalating expenses.

A year on and we shall doubtless be told that to keep up with the presidential Joneses we urgently need a European Air Force One, maybe one of the new Airbus A380 superjumbos, capable of carrying 800 people. And you can bet that the bureaucrats and policy advisers and interpreters and chefs and security men from 27 nations won’t be travelling economy.

Nigel Farage

This week's events will give UKIP leader Nigel Farage's campaign to win the Buckingham seat a boost

Ever greater unity and integration and trans-national powers will be the new President’s watchwords.

For the fact is that we are being asked to bow our heads in meek submission before the President and Foreign Minister of a pseudo-state, whose main effect will not be to give us more clout in the world, but to reinforce the EU’s tendency to override national powers.

To understand what we can expect, all we need to do is to look at the manner of the new appointments. The horsetrading behind closed doors, the petty manoeuvrings, the personal vanities, the shameless ambitions of mediocrities, the lack of anything resembling a manifesto. It was the very opposite of a democratic process. And for what purpose?

We needed a permanent presidency, we were told, as distinct from the rotating six-month arrangement we have had until now, not just to give the EU greater international authority, but to unify it internally.

True, a community that has expanded from six to 27 nations cannot operate the way it did. Especially since it includes countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, whose political, economic and civil cultures are somewhat removed from our own.

But to think we can assimilate these newcomers and pull the Western and Eastern wings of the community together through a unifying presidency is fundamentally wrong.

These are people who have gained their independence from a dominant foreign power. The idea that they must now submit to the ever tighter control of another arbitrarily appointed authority, however benign, is absurd. No better way could be imagined of rendering membership of the EU a historical joke.

What these countries need is practice in the habit of reaching consensus on a fair and equal basis through democratic debate, not some superfluous and patently second-rate president and foreign minister lording it over them.

Yet any criticism of the EU, we are told, plays into the hands of the chauvinists and Little Englanders. Of course such people exist: I argued ad nauseam with some of them when I was an MP.

But being an MP and meeting people face to face teaches you that those who are scandalised by EU incompetence or corruption, or with reservations about joining the Euro, are mostly not jingoists who want to get out of Europe altogether, in the mythical belief that we can stand on our own as an island race. They are just proud, sensible Brits.

It is a myth that the British as a whole are hostile to Europe. People go to France or Germany, look at their roads or trains or schools and health services, and wonder why ours compare so badly. And today they see many continental countries weathering the recession better than us. But they know that federalism is not the answer.

Watching what is happening in Brussels, more of them might now decide that it is time to withdraw altogether.

No wonder the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, is now sounding so chipper about winning the Buckingham seat (my old constituency) from Speaker Bercow. This week’s events will give his campaign a shot in the arm.

President Nicolas Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy apparently wanted an unknown president as he is determined for his country to preserve ultimate freedom of action in international affairs

So much that is done in the EU today is for dubious, opaque or frankly cynical motives, and people across Europe are increasingly sickened by the spectacle.

Even France’s President Sarkozy, we are informed, wanted a President of modest stature because a big figure might overshadow his authority. (Though in truth, it wouldn’t take much to tower over the increasingly erratic and unpopular Sarkozy).

His worry is based on France’s determination to preserve ultimate freedom of action in international affairs. So in a convoluted way Britain and France share similar fears.

But the answer was not to scheme behind closed doors to ensure we end up with a small and malleable figure. It is not to have a pretend President or Foreign Minister at all.

Instead, we should continue the best European traditions of ad hoc co-operation where it makes sense, in areas such as trade or the environment or illegal immigration, and of presenting a united front against threats to European interests, such as Russian bullying over energy supplies.

Alas, the entire presidential affair has been a grotesque piece of flummery and pretension and conceit. It will damage not just the interests of Britain but, in the longer term, of the EU itself.

Pro-Europeans who have talked glibly about how you need a single face to represent you in the modern world will come to realise that, by appointing two nobodies as EU leaders, the Community has contrived the impossible: aiming for the stars yet shooting itself in the foot.

Our adversaries have long known something that Brussels has yet to learn: the EU is not and can never be a country. We can now rely on them to exploit the tensions and disunity that a make-believe European presidency and foreign ministry are bound to create.

What an historical irony if the pressure towards federalism were to re-create the poisonous frictions between nations that Europe’s founding fathers such as Churchill were trying to banish for all time.

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