Tony Blair for President (of the European Union)
Retirement never comes easy to politicians. There’s a long line of prime ministers and presidents who, upon leaving office, struggle either to settle back into ordinary life or to fade into the shadows with quiet dignity.
Some verge on the comical. The patrician figure of Harold Macmillan was known in his political afterlife to deliver impromptu lectures to train conductors about the history of the British railway system.
Others mope in operatic self-pity, with periodic and spectacular volcanic eruptions: Paul Keating the Retirement. Some meanwhile never quite manage to surrender their indomitable will to power.
When I saw John Howard earlier this year when he visited Oxford, he strode with the intent of a wounded prize fighter who still believed he had one more shot at the title. This wasn’t Lazarus with a triple bypass, it was Rocky Balboa starring Mr Sheen.
Yet there are some who defy the rules. Following in the path of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair has tried to show that there can be life after office.
The day after he left Downing Street in 2007, Blair was appointed the special enjoy for the Quartet for the Middle East. Along with advising investment bank JP Morgan, he has also set up a foundation promoting cross-faith understanding, and is a part-time professor at Yale University.
For at least a year, though, there has been speculation that Blair has been trying, through all this, to position himself for a tilt at the presidency of the European Union. At first it sounded a bit fanciful. But it’s now is starting to become less of a fantasy and more of a possible reality.
Earlier this week the UK government, with the backing of PM Gordon Brown, declared Blair as the ideal candidate for the possible vacancy. For his part, Blair hasn’t officially declared his interest, but this latest salvo is clearly a British attempt to gauge European opinion.
There’s no question that Blair is qualified for the job. Someone of his stature is desperately needed for the EU, which has suffered over the years from a lack of institutionalised leadership. The global financial crisis has revealed the inadequacy of the EU’s rotating presidency.
Many regard the recent 6-month presidency of the Czechs as an absolute disaster (in the midst of a global recession, then Czech PM and EU president Mirek Topolanek labelled the Obama administration’s stimulus package as a “road to hell”).
To be sure, it remains a little premature to speak about a President Blair. Whether there will be an EU Council president at all depends first on the Lisbon Treaty passing a referendum in Ireland in October. Even if the Treaty gets up, Blair’s tainted association with George W. Bush and the Iraq War may lead to a veto to any appointment by some European leaders.
Indeed, among many Europeans questions linger about Blair’s motives in remaining on the world’s public stage since resigning as British PM. Here, we venture into the curious psychology of political leaders who wish to “do good” once they retire.
There is, most obviously, the temptation of Jimmy Carter-like sainthood. Even failed politicians can transcend politics and enter the rarefied realm of global statesmanship. Of course, if Blair were truly interested in this, he would be better served to continue with his charitable work and peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, rather than re-enter the world of realpolitik as a partisan player.
Then there’s the matter of legacy and guilt. Might it be that Blair might like to atone for his mistakes over Iraq? That he might just be seeking a second chance to secure a positive legacy?
The more cynical among us may have other answers. Some politicians will simply believe their greatness is yet to arrive. The examples of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle perhaps lull politicians into thinking that they might be recalled in times of crisis, if not from the backbench then from the easy chair of retirement. (Peter Costello has, of course, found out that sometimes the moment may never quite arrive.)
Which might just be another way of saying that ultimately narcissism might just continue to get the better of those for whom politics has been a vocation. Politics, as one comedian once put it, is just show business for ugly people. Vanity is as much the currency among politicians as it is among actors.
Cynicism, however, needn’t mean dismissal. We’d be foolish to insist that the motives of our politicians must be pure, though they mustn’t be corrupt. Politics will always be a dirty business, since the stakes are so high.
And so it is with Blair: a man of undoubted strengths, he also sports dirty hands. But it’s tough to think of anyone else in Europe – neither Sarkozy nor Merkel, and certainly not Berlusconi – who can stride on the global stage with the same gravitas as its leading statesman, or who indeed has the most incentive to do the job well.
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