The European Union is not the X Factor
The appointment on Thursday of Herman van Rumpoy as EU President and Cathy Ashton as Foreign Affairs Representative has been met with some staggering snootiness – mostly from people who admit to knowing neither of them. Apparently they aren’t famous enough to be appointed to such important positions (although all the critics are careful to guard their backs by referring to their undoubted personal qualities and skills). This is the ultimate dumbing down of politics, and a rather childish demand for mother/father figures as our political leaders. Aren’t politicians supposed to become famous (or, be fair, infamous) because of what they do in their highest profile positions? Doesn’t everyone say that we should appoint the best people for the jobs? And would the people who are doing the criticising happily submit their own jobs to the same process of “appointment by celebrity”?
Some people have contrasted Cathy Ashton – who was appointed to the post by the elected leaders of Europe – with her opposite number in the USA, Hillary Clinton, who was …er… appointed to the post by the elected leader of the US. So, that’s two people both appointed by political leaders to do what is in effect a representative, civil service role. Hillary is undoubtedly more famous than Cathy – she is, after all, married to an expert in winning elections rather than an expert in predicting who will win elections. But was Hillary more qualified for the post of foreign affairs representative because of her job as Senator for New York than Cathy was because of her job as the EU’s Trade Commissioner? I think not.
The Financial Times has been particularly snooty – see today’s editorial and lead comment. Now I know it’s tempting fate to criticise the media, but would Lionel Barber (what do you mean you’ve never heard of him? He’s the Financial Times’ editor, and is only marginally better known now than he was when he was appointed, when he wasn’t very famous at all – just look at his stellar Wikipedia entry) really want his successor to be appointed in a public contest of celebrity? Wouldn’t the capacity to do the job be a better criterion?
There has been a whiff of prejudice in some of the coverage – Belgium’s a very small country, complain people who’ve never run anything bigger than their own car; and Cathy, well, she’s only run a health authority, been Leader of the House of Lords and EU Trade Commissioner (is it the pronoun ‘she’ that causes people the problem in that sentence?)
For the record, Cathy Ashton has not done everything that the British or European trade union movement have asked in her time as Trade Commissioner, but she’s very likeable and very approachable. None of these reasons explain the ETUC’s welcome for her appointment, which the TUC endorses. It’s because she’ll be a good EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, despite not winning X Factor.