A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Sunday, 22 May 2011

A Tale of Two Presidents

Herman van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso in happier times. Picture from http://kremlin.ru/visits

The feuding over the successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn as head of the IMF has had repurcussions for European politics. You'd probably expect the European Union to present a united front to the question of who should take over from the former French Finance Minister; it is, of course, vital for them that it is someone who properly understands the bailouts and the people behind them. A European, in other words.

There are already a number of well-placed Europeans poised to take the job. Christine Lagarde, the current French Finance Minister, is one of the favourites. Axel Weber, the former President of the German Central Bank, and a member of the governing council of the European Central Bank. Gordon Brown, whose list of achievements includes over nine hundred PFI schemes, selling national reserves of gold at rock-bottom prices, and a botched rethink of the tax brackets is also a possible contender. It is of vital interest to the EU that they appear to have had some say in the matter, and also that the next head is familiar with the names and faces of EU politics.

On that note, the European Union was playing a near-perfect hand. Jean-Claude Juncker, eurozone president, absolutely refused to comment on the succession dispute, condeming countries - Germany and Belgium - which have already done so, and telling reporters that it would be 'indecent.' Barroso then followed up on this by telling an audience that the next IMF chief should come from the EU. 'It is only natural that EU countries would feel a responsibility to put forward a good candidate.' However, he was vague and made no references to any particular candidate. He also urged a quick resolution of the crisis. Careful diplomacy all round.

Then, President of the European Council, the chairman of meetings between our twenty-seven elected heads of state, has to come in and spoil it. Not only did he say that whoever succeeded to the post did not have to be European, he also made a joke. He said that traditions were not eternal, and 'even the Pope was no longer Italian.' It's slightly more entertaining for the European Business Summit than one of his haikus, but only slightly. It's also a lot more worrying. The second-most powerful man in Europe and the most-powerful man in Europe disputing the importance of a European successor at a time of great political upheaval?

Van Rompuy appeared to backtrack, saying that it was a 'tradition that could be changed, but not now.' It was one of those clanger moments when a politician says something so inextricably daft and ill-advised that the audience takes on a look of shock. Barroso's reaction to it is unknown, but I sincerely hope that he wasn't drinking anything hot at the time.

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