Friday, 20 November 2009

Unelectoral politics

At first sight, the twin appointment of Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Cathy Ashton to their respective eminences in the EU would appear to embody a principle of duality. He: male, from a small country, from a centre-right party, an elected politician; she: female, from a large country, from a centre-left party, an unelected quangocrat (the phrase "unelected politician", which I heard used yesterday to describe her, strikes me as - in the truest sense of the term - an oxymoron; nevertheless, given her CV, it is a bit misleading). They do appear to have some things in common, but again they are structural opposites: he is virtually unknown outside his own country, she is virtually unknown inside hers.

Similarly, both have been explained as technocratic operatives who will do the bidding of the governments who appointed them. That remains to be seen. Early evidence, however, suggests that Van Rompy at least has his own agenda, and it is a federalist, bureaucratic agenda. In a recent speech, he appeared to call for Europe-wide taxes - though it's impossible to be sure precisely what he said, since the remarks were made at a meeting of the notoriously secretive Bilderberg Group. Or perhaps that should be formerly secretive. Conspiracy theorists will no doubt make much of the fact that he was appointed so quickly, and so smoothly, just days after receiving the blessing of the secret rulers of the world. More to the point - it's interesting that they're no longer trying to hide their unelected influence.

And Ashton?

The job of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is potentially both prominent and powerful. It has been described as the diplomatic "face" of the EU, the person at the end of the phone when the Americans want to call Europe, Hillary Clinton's counterpart, the one who will Speak for Europe. And that's only the foreign affairs half of the job: given the all the many things that are done in the name of "security" nowadays this part of her brief could give her power over almost every aspect of our lives. It's worth remembering that David Miliband was sorely tempted to put himself forward for the position, which he would surely have got.

Given that Lady Ashton is so patently uncharismatic, many suspect that her appointment signals a scaling back of the job-description. The appointment has been described (like Rompuy's) as good news for Euro-sceptics. Writing from a different perspective, Carsten Volkery in Spiegel thinks that, "once again the EU has missed an opportunity to boost its standing on the global stage." But the powers accorded the High Rep in the Lisbon Treaty are formidable, and are not diminished by the obscurity of its holder. So it may be worth heeding the view of the Euro-fanatical John Palmer that such reactions "seriously miss the point". He adds:


Some commentators have been too quick to conclude that Ashton's appointment means that nothing will really change; that national governments will remain totally in control. But this ignores two important aspects of her new job. The first is that she will have the power to propose foreign policy initiatives to the Council of Ministers, as well as be given a mandate by them to pursue in international negotiations.

The new EU foreign policy supremo will also no longer function as one important individual with very limited support from policy experts. The first priority of Baroness Ashton will be to introduce the new European external action service (the embryo EU diplomatic service), which was created under the Lisbon Treaty. This will for the first time provide the EU high representative with a flow of information and advice from experts on the ground and make her less dependent than her predecessors on advice from national governments, who are notoriously ready to cloak purely national interest issues under a spurious European wrapping.


It's the sort of job, in other words, that one would expect to be filled by a proper politician - if not someone elected to the post, at least someone who is at home in the rough and tumble of democratic debate. The route by which Ashton arrived at such potential power suggests that she is no more than an apparatchik. She has built a career through sitting on committees, networking, not offending anyone. And luck: the Times remarks that she "has an extraordinary gift for being in the right place at the right time."

If you asked a computer to come up with an identikit of the type of person who has done well out of New Labour, it would produce something like Ashton. She "ticks all the boxes": CND, work in the "equality" industry, chairing a health board, some ministerial experience. Her appointment to the European Commission was an accidental by-product of Peter Mandelson's return from Brussels to rescue Gordon Brown. Like several other prominent New Labour people, she married to a Left-leaning media type, in her case Peter Kellner. She is an embodiment of the quango state, at one remove from democratic control: her legitimacy, if any, derives not from herself but from those that appointed her. She inhabits the strange no-man's land that has appeared between the worlds of democratic politics and bureaucracy; her career demonstrates, if nothing else, just how far it is possible to go in modern politics without ever being elected to anything.