Surprise greeted the morning’s news that one Herman van Rompuy, a Belgian unknown until a few days ago, had become first president of the newly ratified European Union, and one Catherine Ashton, a British peeress every bit as unknown, had become what is modestly called High Representative, in other words in charge of the EU’s foreign policy. Surprise almost immediately turned into a belly laugh that rumbles far and wide. British papers of opposing political outlook have carried the same headline: “The Great EU Stitch-Up.”
These two dim figures have emerged through an invisible process of horse-dealing between the 27 heads of state within the EU. Former prime minister Blair had always let it be known that he expected to be the European president, and I thought that he is such a master of charm and smarm that he would achieve this ambition. The return of an unpopular and retired prime minister as a superior president would have been felt as an insult throughout England, and presumably the 27 horse-dealers took note of that.
Party politics in Belgium has been the sum total of Mr. Van Rompuy’s experience in life. To his credit, he immediately said he hadn’t asked for this post. Lady Ashton’s career is even smaller and duller. She has never been elected to anything,but always risen by appointment and party affiliation. Your standard 20th-century leftie, she is unable to think anything that has not been thought and approved by others. Of course she worked for the Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament that, during the Cold War, did what it could to give the Soviet Union victory. The peak of her career was to head Hertfordshire Health Authority, a local body with the true socialist purpose of exercising state control over the health of others. By chance, I heard her speak — drone, actually — in the House of Lords as the treaty under which she is now promoted was being debated. She was reading a brief in so muffled and unintelligible a way that I doubt she could have understood the words. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is said to have lobbied for her. Praising her promotion, he launched another whole round of belly laughs by referring to her repeatedly as Lady Ashdown. So even he can’t be quite sure who she is.
If only it was all just farce! Step by step, the precedent of replacing democracy with absolute monarchy is becoming a reality.