The fact that both the Guardian and the Daily Mail chose “The Great EU stitch-up” as their splash this morning is not just one of those spasms of cognitive resonance to which Fleet Street is occasionally prone. It is also a rather nice illustration of the perverse nature of the European debate in this country.
The Mail, it is reasonable to say, is not particularly well disposed to the European project (its subhead this morning ran: “A Labour crony no one’s heard of is made EU foreign minister – so a fanatical Belgian federalist who wants Brussels to tax us can become President”). Yet given that the one thing that everyone seems to agree on today is that the EU – by appointing to its top jobs two relatively low-profile figures who are likely to focus on consensus-building rather than power grabs – has retreated from what was supposed to be a grand ambition to be a global player, one might have expected the Eurosceptics to be rather pleased with the way things have turned out. (The New York Times described it thus: “The selection of such low-profile figures seemed to highlight Europe’s problems instead of its readiness to take a more united and forceful place in world affairs.”
The Mail‘s headline, however, suggests that it would have been far happier had the process of selecting the Council president (not “EU president”) and High Rep been put to a pan-European vote. Presumably they would have liked to see the full paraphenelia of an election campaign, with delcared candidates, manifestos, political broadcasts and so on.
Yet this sounds like the sort of thing that you might find in a superstate – exactly what the Mail spends its time railing against. The admittedly rather unedifying spectacle we witnessed last night in Brussels is exactly what you would expect from a grouping of independent countries who have agreed to pool their sovereignty in certain areas for the common good – with leaders of large countries unprepared to appoint political big-hitters to collegiate jobs lest they become serious rivals. Coincidentally enough, this description seems rather apt for the European Union.
The Guardian‘s position is perhaps a little easier to understand. After all, it seems only natural that supporters of a strong Europe would want to see figures of real stature appointed to big EU jobs, rather than the lowest common denominator placeholders member states agreed on last night. Yet they might find cause for cheer too. The thinking runs this way: the biggest hindrance to Europe transforming its undeniable economic weight into global political power has been the unwillingness of member states to take steps to overcome the divisions that plague them on everything from energy policy to the transatlantic relationship. These problems have historically been compounded by certain aspects of the EU’s institutional set-up, it is true, but the provisions put in place by the Lisbon treaty should take care of these. The challenge now is to encourage national leaders to begin to forge a common European purpose – and “consensus-builders” like Cathy Ashton should be in a rather good position to do this.
The truth is that there was never a chance that Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel would have allowed an ambitious but unelected President Blair or High Representative Miliband to override the national interests of their respective countries – and that their commitment to democracy could have been reasonably questioned had they done so. If Europe wants to take its place at the high table, it needs first to learn to sing with one voice – and a skilled “conductor” like Cathy Ashton is far better placed to ensure that than a showy tenor like Blair or Miliband.
So the truth is that both the Mail and the Guardian should find reasons to be cheerful today. The bogeyman of a federal European superstate, which in truth was never more than the warped product of a few paranoid newspaper columnists’ imaginations, is now plainly, clearly, transparently, off the agenda. And yet supporters of the process of integration can take heart that eight years of institutional wrangling is finally over, the job-holders are in place, and the real work can begin – with the danger of the spats between the Brussels institutions and national capitals that have proved so damaging in the past significantly reduced. Doesn’t sound too bad to me.