Friday, November 20, 2009

You're no George Washington

The American Constitution is often held up as the perfect governmental structure. The checks and balances bring things back into line, when any person or institution oversteps. And the amendment procedure is flexible enough to allow the document to change with the times, but rigid enough to give it staying power. That has allowed significant flaws in the 1787 Constitution, especially its tolerance of slavery, to be corrected.

But many other countries have constitutions that look good on paper. Not all of them have had the political success that the U.S. has had.

I would argue that the stamp that George Washington put on the institution of the presidency was also a major factor.

The framers of the Constitution are said to have had Washington in mind when they designed that office. He had sufficient stature to assert authority as a strong executive. That stature derived from his inherent personal qualities, as well as his military leadership during the Revolution.

The precedents that Washington set, ensured that presidents would be more than mere administrators. On the other hand, they would not be monarchs, especially in light of Washington's precedent of retiring after eight years on the job.

The European Union (EU) just completed the process of adopting a new constitution, which I described here and here when that process was almost over. I see similarities between the EU's action, and America's strengthening of its federal structure, when it replaced its original constitution, the Articles of Confederation. I hope to explore that topic further, when I have the time.

The new EU constitution, the Lisbon Treaty, creates two new offices, president of the Council, and high representative. Those are informally called, respectively, president of Europe and the European foreign minister.

Filling EU offices always involves considerations of nationality and one's place on the political spectrum. It had been clear for some time that the two new offices would be balanced between left and right, and between the larger countries and the smaller ones.

But, in this case, there was also the stature issue. Backers of the unsuccessful presidential candidacy of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in terms of his ability to stop traffic in Beijing. In other words, the issue was whether the EU wanted internationally recognized Big Names in the new positions.

In the end, the EU answered "no" to that question.

Their choice for president is Belgian Prime Minister Herman Von Rompuy, who has been in that office for less than 11 months. Van Rompuy, 62, trained as an economist, has been a bureaucrat in various positions in his home country. Perhaps the traffic would stop for him in Brussels, but probably not anywhere else. His party is that of the center-right Christian Democrats.

For some time, the expectation had been that, if Blair didn't get the top job, Britain would get the consolation prize of the foreign minister position. That turned out to be the case but, again, that choice was underwhelming.

Two Big Names had been mentioned for that office: Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, both of whom, along with Blair, belong to the Labor Party. They both backed out of the race.

Catherine Ashton, a.k.a. Baroness Ashton of Upholland, will be the high representative, if confirmed by the European Parliament. Ashton, 53, was appointed to Britain's House of Lords in 1999, and has been the EU's trade commissioner since October of 2008.

This article from the London Times sums up what seems to be the prevailing opinion about the Baroness:

The appointment as a little-known peer to become Europe's first "foreign minister" stunned and dismayed many in Westminster [the district of London where Parliament meets] ...

The votes seem to reflect an aversion on the part of European leaders to have anyone atop the EU structure who might overshadow the national leaders of the member states. That's a signal that the EU will not move closer to being, in Winston Churchill's famous phrase, the United States of Europe. After all, how could you have a United States without a George Washington?

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