Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Vaclav Havel for EU president?

In amongst some otherwise predictable poll findings, Cold War hero and former Czech president Vaclav Havel gets a brief mention. It’s the first time I can recall his name cropping up in relation to the job – but God damn, he could be ideal.

Yes, being a 72-year-old two-time cancer sufferer he’s not in the peak of health, but he’s done more to help eastern Europe integrate with the west than pretty much any other post-Cold War European politician – primarily through his efforts to scrap the Warsaw Pact, but also through the continuing power of Charter 77 to inspire drives for positive change.

The symbolic value of having an eastern European (well, central European, but you know what I mean) as the first permanent president of the EU could be ideal as Europe continues to try to get over the divisions of the 20th century – and ending such divides was, the primary motivation for starting the European project in the first place.

Plus, Havel has much experience of battling against a clunky bureaucratic system, a strong track record in bringing about meaningful reform, and the kind of personal understanding of the promise of the EU that many in western Europe seem to be forgetting. With his playwright’s mastery of words and strong international reputation, he could be both the kind of politician non-EU heads of state would be pleased to deal with, and exactly the kind of convincing, passionate spokesman the European Union has desperately needed for so long to keep its people focussed on what the EU is really all about.

Plus, of course, as anyone who has ever seen any of his plays or read any interviews with him can attest, he is also a philosopher of unusual subtlety and humanism – and, most importantly as far as I’m concerned, entered politics only reluctantly. Who better than a philosopher king to lead Europe?

Seriously, have a quick gander at the page devoted to Havel on WikiQuote, and tell me this isn’t the sort of person we should have running things. Even just read this one short extract from his 1 January 1990 address to the nation, and tell me this isn’t what the EU should be:

You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn

Or this, from a 1994 speech that seems to have more relevance now than ever:

Our civilization has essentially globalized only the surfaces of our lives. But our inner self continues to have a life of its own. And the fewer answers the era of rational knowledge provides to the basic questions of human Being, the more deeply it would seem that people, behind its back as it were, cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe…

It is clearly necessary to invent organizational structures appropriate to the present multicultural age. But such efforts are doomed to failure if they do not grow out of something deeper, out of generally held values.

I am referring to respect for the unique human being and his or her liberties and inalienable rights and to the principle that all power derives from the people.

This is the kind of guy the EU needs.


  1. If ‘all power derives from the people’, would it be an irony or a sly move to elect such a person to chair the most intergovernmental EU institution of them all, the European Council?

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Czech Republic: Havel For EU President?

  3. Sorry, No. I must say I grudgingly say “no” because I have always liked Havel. He certainly is one of the great figures of our time, and generally has appropriately (to me) political views.

    But the Czechs are currently ruled by a man who is slightly too Eurosceptic, resulting in yet another nation that feels it should have any number of “opt-outs” and doesn’t want to join the Euro. The first president of the Council needs to be from a country that has not chosen to opt-out of anything, and instead has argued for increased cooperation.

    I really don’t deny peoples’ (and countries’) right to determine their own path or even to leave the Union. They are very much welcome to it. But they shouldn’t be placated by giving them important positions, much less expect to be able to play an important role in the union which they only half-heartedly support.

    The EU is (or rather, should be) like a sports club: you can join if you want to and agree to follow the clubs’ rules. But you can’t join just a part of it. You’re free to leave, or get involved fully if you want to change the charter. The president of the club will be someone who has contributed significantly and participates in its most important events.

    Hence, the first EU Council President will need to be from a country that has no opt-outs nor is not yet in the Euro. Such countries will never support anyone who doesn’t. Belgium, for one, has already made that clear.

  4. SD, I agree with you, more or less, as I explained in my 19 March 2008 post ‘Heavyweight president for European Council?’, although I primarily share the feeling of many (most?) Europeans that a separate president for the European Council would be unnecessary. Better let the Commission president, with democratic legitimacy, chair the meetings, as proposed by the ‘Who do I Call?’ initiative.

    One clarification may be in order, though, as said by Jean Quatremer on his Coulisses de Bruxelles blog: There is a difference between new member states which have not yet managed to join the Euro, for instance, and old members who have chosen to opt out of (or disregard) core EU areas.

    My feeling is that it would be preferable if one of two (or three) top office holders comes from one of the new member states.

  5. You see, I think that having someone from a slightly EU-sceptical country who has a strong track record as a pro-democracy campaigner occupying a figurehead position within the EU hierachy (which is all the president of the Council is likely to be, as much as everyone – me included – is likely to refer to them as “President of the EU”) is perfect.

    Sod the hardcore integrationists, the EU is still – like it or not – in a period of flux and semi-crisis, with no clear idea of its direction. With the credit crunch beginning to threaten the Eurozone (according to the FT yesterday, on which more later, I hope), the sort of increased integration the more enthusiastic member states have been pushing towards may not be sustainable. And, of course, for the EU to be a real success it has to keep as many members as possible as happy as possible.

    Telling the more sceptical countries “join in on our terms or piss off” is the very worst thing the integrationists could do, as it will destroy the EU’s ability to become a genuinely influential coalition on the world scene.

    By getting a genuine reformer like Havel in to the top levels of the EU hierachy – even to a symbolic, powerless position – there’s a possibility that 1) such an indication of a willingness to reform further will placate some of the more sceptical countries, and 2) that the EU may actually listen to that reformer, and try to come up with the kind of radical reforms I’ve long reckoned are the only sensible way forward. Because the only thing I’ve always remained convinced of when it comes to the EU (both when I was anti- and now that I’m pro-) is that with our current – relatively low – levels of political/economic/cultural/social integration, one size does not fit all.

  6. Nosemonkey,

    Do you see choosing leaders with a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude as a formula for success in other human endeavours, or just in the context of the European Union?

  7. Sorry, not sure where you got the idea I’m advocating giving the job to someone who couldn’t care less… Surely I said precisely the opposite, in advocating giving the job to someone with a track record as a reformer, rather than a yes-man?

  8. Nosemonkey, I do agree with some of what you’re saying (I am in full support of serious reform, even though I’m obviously very integrationist), but I state again:

    If you want to change the rules of your sports club, you will need to join it, be seen to support its major functions, and be prepared to constructively build alliances and compromises with existing full members.

    Ralf: I agree there is a difference between new countries not yet in the Euro but soon to be, and old countries who don’t want to join. But I’m unsure whether the Czech republic at this stage belongs in the first category. They are required to join, AFAIK, but are doing everything to postpone that obligation as much as possible.

  9. Nosemonkey, as SD points out about the importance of a constructive attitude by the member state, I spoke figuratively about the ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude, including countries, not primarily to disregard Havel.

    As I have written elsewhere, I think that the track record of both the candidate and his or her country should be taken into account.

    Any human organisation needs some driving force if it wants to advance. Merely wallowing within a comfort zone of ‘diversity’ is not a formula for Europe’s success in the world.

  10. Ralf – indeed, but who’s to say that your vision of the EU is the right one? Who’s to say the vision of the more enthusiastic integrationist states is the best route towards greater prosperity, freedom and higher standards of living for all (surely the ultimate aim)?

    I’d argue that the attitudes of those people/countries pressing ahead with the old vision of ever closer union, and trying to force the rest to follow them down the same path, is more damaging to the EU long-term than those of (some of) the more critical, less enthusiastic member states (not the British attitude, though – that’s simply been obstructionist for a good couple of decades now).

    After all, everyone’s agreed that now that the EU has four and a half times the members that it had when it was founded as the EEC, some sort of serious reform is vital. That’s what the Nice and Lisbon treaties were meant to be sorting out, but have still failed to do – because there is more than one vision of what the EU should be. This is naturally leading to ever more resentment – both among the integrationist countries, who are being held back, and among the less enthusiastic members, who want to take it more slowly.

    Yet this is a debate that has yet to come out into the open, so strong is the hold of the more integrationist countries over the project. The question approaching both Nice and Lisbon/the Constitution hasn’t been “are we heading in the right direction?”, but “how can we continue in this direction?”

    The EU’s been surrounded and run by far too many yes men for far too long – little wonder resentment is rising on all sides. The rise of euroscepticism in pretty much every country has, after all, been largely due to the (entirely understandable) feeling that the criticisms aren’t being listened to. And little wonder people feel this – because nine times out of ten the criticisms are ignored. Ireland votes against Nice, they’re told to vote again. France and the Netherlands vote against the constitution, it’s reimposed as the Lisbon Treaty.

    The short version, I guess, is that I reckon that constructive criticism is worth far more than blind loyalty, and generally – if listened to – leads to a far more productive outcome. Having someone capable of offering constructive criticism in a senior position would also show willingness to listen to such criticism, and so increase the likelihood of more engagement from the less enthusiastic members.

    (Sorry – this is turning lengthy… I should probably turn it into a proper post…)

  11. Well, Nosemonkey, why not let the integrationist countries advance and choose the persons to lead?

    The unenthusiastic and recalcitrant should be happy to opt out without manning the top posts.

    I wonder about your reading of the European project. In my view it has been downhill since the Laeken declaration, with the intergovernmentalist countries chipping away at citizens’ rights and democratic reform at every turn.

  12. Reading the information in your site, I got to know that Havel’s name can be indicated for EU President. Eventhough I’m not from Europe – I’m Brazilian – Havel is the only President I heard that forgave everyone when was made President. That’s very important because forgiveness is the only way to cure relationships. Europe through mileniums has been bleeding and only forgiveness can cure all bleedings. I would vote for Havel, the man that is so sure of himself that can give himself the opportunity to forgive others. Only forgiveness can cure humanity. Only forgiveness can cure hate, and open the gate to love, joy and true peace, everlasting Peace. That’s what the world is in need, specialy Europe, divided by so many ways of thought. We, from the so called New World, have europe as a model, that has lost its route with so many pathways to follow. Choose forgiveness, with Havel! That’s the royal road to follow!
    Maria Thereza de Barros Camargo
    Rio de Janeiro, Brazil