December 12, 2017
Monday, July 7, 2014

The new cowboy diplomats

File photo of former British prime minister and multitasking advisorTony Blair.
File photo of former British prime minister and multitasking advisorTony Blair.
File photo of former British prime minister and multitasking advisorTony Blair.
By Ivan Briscoe
For the Herald

EU figures seeking to hawk own bespoke foreign policies

THE HAGUE — Circled by an incandescent ring of revolutions and wars that turns its heat up and down without any prior warning, it is bound to be reassuring for the EU to know that the man destined to be the bloc’s new executive head is a paragon of staying power. Amid a neighbourhood of jihadist blitzes and rebel splinters, Jean-Claude Juncker evokes the certainty of a good lunch in his home country of Luxembourg, a land where he was the elected prime minister for 18 years, and where the per capita income is where one would like it to be: second in the world.

The prospect of this consummate deal-maker in charge of the European Commission — pending ratification by the EU Parliament this month — has not gone without a fight. But it was not Juncker’s distance from the heaving masses that caused the greatest commotion. British Prime Minister David led a virulent campaign to halt Juncker in his tracks, seeing in this son of a steelworker a nefarious talent for slithering through the boardrooms. He was, in Cameron’s words, the “ultimate Brussels insider,” who would be perfectly happy to sign away 800 years of British democratic tradition in favour of a European supra-state.

Naturally, under the dark and glowering sky composed of the British media, and above all Rupert Murdoch’s portion of it, this diplomatic quarrel was spiced up by the euro-sceptic factory of wit. Some fretted over his drinking (“a cognac at breakfast”) and his private earnings, activities both unthinkable to members of the British political establishment. One Conservative parliamentarian compared the man to a Luftwaffe plane in World War II, known as a Junker: “In a previous Battle of Britain we saw off Junkers,” he quipped.

On this occasion, however, the flying squadron of the Luxembourgeois delivered its payload successfully onto Mr. Cameron’s bald patch. A little over a week ago, Juncker received the backing of 26 of the EU’s 28 member-states for his new post. Yet this show of near unanimity, with the Tories of Britain finding appropriate company for its opposition stance in the nationalist authoritarians of Hungary, does not ease deeper concerns about Europe and its relations to the regions around it.

In the wake of Juncker’s appointment, haggling is ongoing in Brussels over who should now become the new chief of foreign policy, replacing the incumbent since late 2009, the British baroness Catherine Ashton. Front runners include the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt. But whoever is chosen to represent the EU abroad, career prospects for the new incumbent appear to range from the negative to the cataclysmic. “The high representative is simply a scapegoat for member states’ reluctance to acknowledge their individual weaknesses and to work together to achieve objectives they cannot secure acting alone,” observed Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. “The primary qualification for the post, therefore, is a thick skin.”

These and other unavoidable limitations to a common European foreign policy, let alone a shared military force, are well known. Ashton’s achievements in office are rather more than her critics allow for: she was without doubt the principal agent of the deal on uranium enrichment reached with the Iranians last November. But her perseverance is dwarfed by the determination of big European states to maintain control over foreign policy, even when the likes of Syria and Egypt confound them, as well as by the peculiar proliferation of European cowboy diplomats charging off into the gathering storms.

Only Europe’s collective inertia can account for the limelight that is hogged by European figures seeking to hawk their own bespoke foreign policies. And no one is more expressive of the privatization of diplomacy than the former British prime minister, Tony Blair. Once, in the age of innocence that preceded the felling of the twin towers and the onset of viral media, he brought a certain odourless freshness to his country’s politics. Noel Gallagher, epitome of rock-star cool in the 1990s, famously engaged him in small-talk in Downing Street. “The fact that a guy who’d been in a band, owned an electric guitar and has probably had a spliff was prime minister really meant something, after years of John Major and Margaret Thatcher,” Gallagher observed.

So much for first impressions. The Blair that was then known by his tabloid moniker “Bambi” has evolved, after a decade of power marked by a series of ever more fruitless foreign wars, into a perma-tanned exhibit of Davos man, inhabiting some of the least transparent caverns of Arab politics. His conglomerate of political advisory services appears to make good money from questionable regimes in Kazakhstan and Kuwait, and is reportedly about to provide economic advice to Egypt, fresh from its culling of the Muslim Brotherhood government.

Meanwhile, Blair also heads the Quartet diplomatic mission aimed at easing the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Whenever he can, he berates the existential threat of radical Islam. Last week he was in Cartagena promoting peace and Third Way — a fusion of Socialism and free markets — to the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Simply jumping from one pedestal and conviction to the next must be joyously liberating. It is also lucrative: his profits from last year are estimated at US$20 million.

Yet Blair is far from being alone in shaping a career out of old political contacts and new business opportunities. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder advises Gazprom, and celebrated his 70th birthday party in April alongside Vladimir Putin at the time the EU was about the step up sanctions on Russia. Spain’s former Prime Minister Felipe González has also kept trim by pursuing numerous business services for Spanish multinationals and billionaires in Latin America, including Carlos Slim. The leader of the country’s newest radical party is not impressed: “Felipe doesn’t like poor people. He hates them.”

Such dubious fixing on behalf of the great fortunes would indeed suggest a moral vacuum at the heart of Europe’s old social democracy. But so long as European foreign policy buries its head in the sand, the attractions of a mobile political cadaver may seem ever greater.


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