SCANNING the likely runners in the forthcoming European Union presidential stakes, I was suddenly distracted by the question: which animal would best symbolise the EU.
After all, America’s political parties long ago adopted creatures as quirky symbols – the Democratic donkey seen as smart and brave, the Republican elephant strong and dignified.
Many countries also have beasts they regard as emblematic…Britain the bulldog, France a cockerel and Russia a bear. So I set my mind to choosing one that captured the essence of the EU and initially seized on the camel.
After much deliberation, though, I sacked it on the grounds it would give Europhiles the hump, despite my belief a camel encapsulated typical EU ‘group think’: a horse designed by committee.
The idea of a hippo briefly appealed, since it spends most of its time wallowing in muddy self-gratification or underwater, oblivious to criticism.
Then – voila! – the rhino raised its monstrous head. Thick-skinned, brutish and easily nettled, it’s also short-sighted but blessed with an acute sense of smell to alert it to threats.
Besides, the comparison between the lumbering ungulate and today’s newly-elected EU assembly seemed apt, since MEPs are behaving in rather rhino-ish ways in their hostility to the heads of Europe’s 28 member states, each of whom appoints a commissioner to Brussels.
The rumpus concerns who replaces José Manuel Barroso as President in November, but, more significantly, who has the right to appoint a successor.
All eleven, previous bosses owed their jobs to accommodations struck between national leaders.
Now, however, the largest party grouping of MEPs claims it is entitled it to decide who rules the EU roost, even if the 2008 Lisbon Treaty simply say its views should be ‘taken into account’.
Certainly, giving power to elected representatives would be a step in a democratic direction for an institution not famed as egalitarian.
But therein lies the rub. The main clique is the European Peoples’ Party (EEP) – an amalgam of centre-Right democrats, which David Cameron’s Conservatives quit in protest at its archly federalist tendencies – and their preferred candidate is Jean-Claude Juncker.
The problem is the former Luxemburg Prime Minister is something of a Marmite Man, admired and abhorred in equal measure.
It is not simply his messianic belief in the EU morphing into a United States of Europe that riles detractors; it’s rather that he’s the diplomatic equivalent of a Sherman tank, crushing dissenting voices and taking no prisoners.
And the nation at which Juncker targets most of his spleen is the UK, as his vitriolic speech to the 2005 EU parliament demonstrated.
In it, he singled out ‘Anglo-Saxon villainy’, asserting that any country standing in the way of ‘the future superstate’ was inspired by petty, squalid and immoral interests, while being ‘deaf to historic destiny’.
It was a reckless tirade, all the more stupid since it ignored every member state leader’s declared priority to pursue their ‘national interest.’
But Juncker has a reputation for loose-tongue faux pas – especially when primed by alcohol – never more tellingly than with his remark, ‘When the going gets tough, you have to lie.’
This notorious one-liner came in the wake of his forced resignation as Luxemburg’s premier, after an inquiry concluded that he turned a blind eye to rogue elements of the Grand Duchy’s security service spying on whoever they liked.
Meanwhile, there’s also the taint of hypocrisy in Juncker being the first ‘chosen one’ – spitzenkandidat – from the floor of the EU parliament, since his take on democracy can verge on Stalinist.
When the French and Dutch famously voted against a European constitution, Juncker led calls for them to vote and vote again, until they bowed to his will. As it transpired, the Lisbon Treaty put paid to rebellion, since no member state bothered to hold it to a referendum, apart from Ireland, which was pressured into overturning an initial ‘No’ vote at the second time of asking.
Dubbed ‘a face from the past’ by Cameron, the wave of popularity that promised to sweep Juncker to the throne of Europe is now being undermined by many powerful voices, though Germany’s Angela Merkel remains a fervent fan.
However, that the largest bloc in the EU parliament lauds him is further testimony to its crass disregarded for the welling discontent fomenting across Europe.
In last month’s MEP elections, huge swathes of electors delivered a resounding message to the Brussels elite that they are riled to the point of revolt by the incompetence of EU decision-makers and, particularly, the impact of ill-conceived austerity.
As they voted far-Right and extreme Left in droves, Juncker’s vision of force-feeding more of the same, putrid medicine down their throats underlines the widening disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.
Cameron is clear he needs the Luxemburger like he yearns for a root canal filling minus anaesthetic. Others – particularly the reformist Dutch and Swedes – are similarly persuaded a Juncker presidency would be an unmitigated disaster and drive the electorate to further extremes.
The best-case scenario is that a compromise candidate is agreed between the national leaders and the EEP, so the name of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s moderate, centre-Left prime minister and Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law, is being loudly touted.
Whether common sense ever prevails where the EU is concerned is entirely another matter.