Tony Blair is being widely touted in the British media as the obvious and only choice for the Presidency of the European Council – a new full time post created under the Lisbon Treaty. But there is another potential candidate, Mary Robinson, currently co-Chair of the Road to Copenhagen, who has far better credentials as an environmentalist, human rights activist, and embodiment of the European ideal. Watch her in the video above making the link between human rights and climate change. Look at her credentials and those of Tony Blair, and make your own choice.
The growing debate on who should be the first full-time President of the European Council is much to welcomed – and shows a level of popular engagement with the EU project post Lisbon which I hope will be taken into account by the electorate for this august post – the heads of the 27 Governments represented on the Council.
A number of current and past prime ministers have been suggested for the post including Felipe González, Paavo Lipponen, Jan Peter Balkenende, Jean-Claude Juncker and Herman Van Rompuy. However, by far the most controversial suggestion has been Tony Blair.
The job is not particularly well defined in the Treaty, but it is generally accepted that it will involve preparing and chairing meetings of the Council and representing the EU throughout Europe and abroad. However it does not have executive powers (reserved for the President of the Commission) and neither will it have a hands on role in foreign policy formulation (the responsibility of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy).
The chief role of the office of President of the Council will therefore be to coordinate the work of the Council and ensure that it develops agreed positions on the key issues confronting the EU over the next few years – Globalisation, Financial Regulation, Climate Change, Energy security, Peace Keeping and the promotion of Human Rights.
Despite his positive role in the Northern Irish Peace process, Tony Blair is spectacularly unqualified to develop a European consensus on these issues. He divided Europe over the Iraq war; he championed the neo-liberal market de-regulation “reforms” which led, in part, to the current global financial crisis; he failed to take the UK into the Euro; and the UK derogated from the Schengen agreement and the Charter of Fundamental Rights under his leadership.
After 10 years of his Premiership, the UK is far behind its major European partners in terms of EU integration, financial market regulation, renewable energy production, and Climate Change mitigation. Appointing Tony Blair to the position of President of the Council would signal that the EU is no longer committed to forging ahead on those issues.
Much has been made of the possibility that his appointment might encourage the UK to be less Euro-sceptic and luke warm in its commitment to the EU. However the statements by Conservative leaders opposing his appointment, and the revulsion felt my many within the UK at his deceitful justifications for participating in the invasion of Iraq means that his appointment might, if anything, further alienate the UK from the EU.
One cannot ameliorate the democratic deficit within the EU and the lack of engagement of many people with European institutions by appointing to the Presidency someone who is widely perceived as having subverted the democratic process in his own country during his Premiership.
The Lisbon Treaty provides for the EU having to respond to Citizens petitions signed by over 1 million people throughout the EU. Already over 38,00O have signed a the Stop Blair petition against his appointment. If people want to propose a more inspirational choice for the office of President, they could do worse than campaign for Mary Robinson. A Facebook group supporting her candidacy has attracted over 6000 members in just a few days.
So who is Mary Robinson, and why should we support her? Mary was first elected to the Irish Senate in 1969 at the age of 25.
From this body she campaigned on a wide range of liberal issues, including the right of women to sit on juries, the then requirement that all women upon marriage resign from the civil service, and the right to the legal availability of contraception. This latter campaign won her many enemies. Condoms and other items were regularly sent in the post to the senator by conservative critics and a false rumour was spread that the chain of pharmacies Hayes, Conyngham Robinson was owned by her family (and so therefore that her promotion of contraception was an attempt to benefit members of her family). So unpopular was her campaign among fellow politicians that when she introduced the first bill proposing to liberalise the law on contraception into the senate, no other member would agree to ‘second’ the initiative and so it could not be further discussed.
As well a campaigning on women’s issues, Mary also fought for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland.
Homosexuality was formally decriminalised in 1993. This was the result of a campaign by Senator David Norris and the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform which led to a ruling in 1988 that Irish laws prohibiting homosexual activities were in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform was founded in the 1970s to fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, its founding members including Senator Norris and current and former President of Ireland Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson.
The use of European Law to achieve social reforms in Ireland is a common theme throughout her work (and explains the hostility of Coir and other religious and conservative anti-Lisbon Treaty groups to the (PDF) Charter of Fundamental Rights which will become law as part of the Lisbon Treaty.
Mary’s environmental credentials also go back to the 1970’s. Mary Robinson, along with hundreds of thousands of other Irish people, clashed with Dublin Corporation when it planned to built its new administrative headquarters on Wood Quay, one of Europe’s best preserved Viking sites. Though Robinson and people who in the past might not have espoused her causes, fought a determined battle, Wood Quay was ultimately bulldozed and concreted over, to build the controversial Civic Offices.
On 3 December, 1990, Mary Robinson was inaugurated as the seventh President of Ireland, the first successful candidate not from the dominant conservative Fianna Fail party, and the first female President. She revolutionised what had been something of a moribund Office populated by semi retired senior politicians by inviting many excluded and marginalised groups to her Official Residence and doing much to end the historic enmity between Ireland and Great Britain, the former colonial power.
She reached out to the Irish ‘diaspora’ (the vast number of Irish emigrants and people of Irish descent). She also changed the face of Anglo-Irish relations, visiting Britain and became the first Irish president to meet Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. She welcomed visits by senior British royals, most notably the Prince of Wales to her official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin.
She retained a high profile on human rights issues by meeting Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama) to the fury of the People’s Republic of China and visited Rwanda to draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe there.
Despite being unapologetically on the left of the Irish political spectrum, her popularity was unprecedented.
By half way through her term of office her popularity rating reached an unheard of 93%.<sup id=”cite_ref-12″></sup>
In one of her roles as president, the signing into laws of Bills passed by the Oireachtas she was called upon to sign two very significant Bills that she had fought for throughout her political career. A Bill to fully liberalise the law on the availability of contraceptives, and a law fully decriminalising homosexuality and unlike Britain and much of the world at the time, providing for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and LGBT people alike.
There can be no doubt, therefore, about her abilities as a unifying force, even when her agenda is far ahead of the very conservative Irish political landscape she inherited.
She resigned from the Presidency a few months before her term of Office ended in 1997 to take up an appointment as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Robinson was the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Tibet, making her trip in 1998. During her tenure she criticised the Irish system of permits for non-EU immigrants as similar to “bonded labour” and criticised the United States‘ use of capital punishment. Though she had initially announced her intention to serve a single four-year period, she extended the term by a year following an appeal from Annan, allowing her to preside over the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, as Secretary-General. Robinson’s posting as High Commissioner ended in 2002, after sustained pressure from the United States led her to declare she was no longer able to continue her work.<sup id=”cite_ref-13″></sup> Robinson had criticised the US for violating human rights in its war on terrorism and the World Conference against Racism was widely condemned in the US for its perceived anti-semitism. Michael Rubin even went so far as to suggest that she be tried for war crimes for presiding over “an intellectual pogrom against Jews and Israel.”<sup id=”cite_ref-14”></sup>
There can therefore also be no doubt about her willingness to take on powerful adversaries in support of unpopular causes. Do we want the European Union to stand up for European values as encoded in the Charter of Fundamental Rights? Then we could have no finer representative than Mary Robinson who has stood up for those values all her political life in so doing transforming Ireland form a conservative backwater and helping to build a more humanitarian world order.
Since 2002, Mary Robinson has been Honorary President of Oxfam International and she is also a founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. She serves on many boards including the Vaccine Fund and is a founding member of the Elders along with a number of other very distinguished statemen and women.
On 18 July 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu convened a group of world leaders to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. Nelson Mandela announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his 89th birthday.
Archbishop Tutu will serve as the Chair of The Elders. The founding members of this group also include Graça Machel, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing and Muhammad Yunus.
Mary Robinson’s newest project is the Ethical Globalization Initiative (EGI), which seeks to incorporate human rights into the globalization process, and support capacity building and good governance in developing countries.
What finer representative could we have of what the EU should be about – human rights, humanitarian concerns, climate change – someone who has braved opposition both at home and abroad in support of the policies she and we believe in, policies which have now been incorporated into the Lisbon Treaty which also creates the post of full time President of the European Council – a post ideally suited to her talents.
Go lobby your political leaders for someone we can believe in.