“We Face an Aggressive Secular Attack”

The words above raised some eyebrows when they were bellowed yesterday at a conference at Georgetown University in Washington, but they weren’t from a fiery American evangelical – they were from former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. The same Tony Blair who is currently the bookies’ favourite to become the first “president of Europe”. Continuing my look at the factors in the choice of the first person to take up the President of the European Council position, I thought at how these comments yesterday might affect the debate. Considering he is currently lobbying to be the symbolic leader of largely secular Europe, the speech seems remarkably ill-timed in its vitriolic attack on atheism (full text of the speech here). According to the Times, Blair said of the world’s religions:

“We face an aggressive secular attack from without. We face the threat of extremism from within.” Arguing that there was “no hope” from atheists who scorn God, he said the best way to confront the secularist agenda was for all faiths to unite against it. “Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God’s name, both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century.”

Apparently to Blair, Atheists and terrorists are two sides of the same coin. To call the comments incendiary is an understatement, and they may well come up during the difficult deliberations over the next month over who should take up the position of Europe’s first symbolic “president”. And it certainly won’t help Blair with secular Europeans that his speech was delivered in ultra-religious America.

Indeed it is Blair’s ties with America that are proving the biggest stumbling block to his candidacy, particularly his relationship with former President George W. Bush. The European left already reviles him for tearing Europe apart in 2003 by being an unquestioning defender of the Iraq war.

For me personally, there is just no way I could support someone for this position who said those words above. So my hesitation is over, I can unequivocally say that putting Tony Blair in that position would be a bad move for Europe, and it would not be worth the celebrity and energy he would bring to the role.

Contrary to the conclusions already drawn by the British tabloid media, I actually don’t even think it is very likely he will get the position. As the Economist’s Charlemagne column points out today, the fact that Tony Blair’s name has been connected with this position for two years now actually works against him, as front-runners rarely secure euro-jobs in the end. And the reasons for various and disparate groups to oppose him are too high in number to see how he could overcome them easily. Small states don’t want to see the position go to anyone from the big three. The left hates him for the Iraq War, his abandonment of socialism to win UK elections and his sudden conversion to aggressive religiosity. The continental right is at best lukewarm toward him and at worst jealous of his celebrity. The British right reviles him. Who exactly is supporting this man?

So who am I backing? He may not be famous or charismatic, but my hopes are being placed in Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker. As leader of the Eurozone finance ministers he is keenly placed to help Europe through the recovery and to put in place new safeguards and regulatory regimes to prevent another crisis. Of course there are significant hurdles for him to overcome as well. Both Labour and the Tories hate him for his unabashed federalism, and Sarkozy reportedly thinks he bungled the start of the financial crisis.

So even though I was on the fence, there’s just no way I can hold my nose and cast my lot for Blair after hearing what he said in Washington yesterday, no matter how much his celebrity would give the EU some much-needed glamour and cache. Juncker may not be a Barack Obama, but given the disillusion many American progressives are now feeling about that presidency across the pond, maybe celebrity presidencies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.