When Tony Blair was, briefly, in the running to become the first president of the European Union, the UK’s then foreign secretary, David Miliband, pushed Blair’s case by arguing the new role needed to be filled by someone who could “stop traffic” in Beijing and Washington. It was an echo of Henry Kissinger’s famous question about who to call in Europe when there’s an emergency. And as the decision to give the job to an anonymous Belgian with little clout showed, Europe still doesn’t have an answer to Kissinger’s question.
As the Euro crisis rumbles on – a dull yet deadly loop of endless emergency summits, belated half-decisions and over-optimistic claims that this time, no really, the worst is over – it’s become worryingly clear that no-one is actually in charge.
In theory, four different people could be in charge. José Manuel Barroso heads the commission, Herman Van Rompuy – a man unlikely to stop traffic anywhere – is the president of the European Council, as Poland is the current president of the European Union, prime minster Donald Tusk is chairing this week’s summit, and a case could probably be made for Jean-Claude Trichet, chairman of the European Central Bank. Search for those four names in this week’s coverage though and you’ll struggle to find them mentioned.
In practice, the two people who could best lay claim to having their hand on the tiller are Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. The only problem, of course, is that neither seem too keen on leading a continent. Both are far too preoccupied with domestic audiences. Sarkozy is already trailing his Socialist rival, François Hollande, in the polls ahead of next year’s presidential elections, while Merkel and her coalition partners have lost a series of local and regional votes.
The UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, isn’t much use either, egged on by the Eurosceptic right of his party to use this moment to renegotiate the country’s relationship with the EU. Over the weekend Sarkozy finally tired of Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne’s constant criticism of Eurozone leaders, telling him to “shut up” and leave them to get on with it.
There will be an emergency heads of state meeting of the 27 EU countries on Wednesday. Maybe this time one of them will step forward with a plan that works; maybe this time one of them will say they are prepared to make the national sacrifices necessary to ensure the continent’s economic future can be assured. Maybe this time the 27 countries will all work together and find a proper solution.
I’m clutching at straws, I know. But there are only so many times a crucial bailout can be held up by a small Slovakian rump of MPs or a decision on Eurobonds can be held over until some unspecified date in the future.
This is a crisis without leaders and no-one, so far, has any idea how we get out of it.