Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Carl Bildt and the cost of speaking plainly

by Charles Grant

Carl Bildt is better known throughout the world than most of his fellow EU foreign ministers – and many of the prime ministers, too. That is not only because he has held some senior jobs (prime minister of Sweden, and Balkan envoy for both the United Nations and the EU), but also because he is actively engaged in, and knowledgeable about, a wide range of international issues.

Someone with Bildt’s skills and experience should be the front-runner to become the EU’s new High Representative – in effect its foreign policy chief – if, as is likely, the Lisbon treaty is finally implemented at the end of this year. That treaty would merge the roles currently played by Javier Solana, the current High Representative, and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the commissioner for external relations, into a single post at the head of a new ‘external action service’ – an embryonic EU foreign ministry.

But Bildt’s chances of being appointed High Representative are slim. This is because he tends to say what he thinks and that is not always wise in politics or diplomacy. His frank and trenchant opinions appeal to think-tankers and journalists but not always to other foreign ministers. Some of them find his confidence and cleverness, and the length of his contact book, irritating. And sometimes he conducts his own solo diplomacy, particularly when Balkan problems hot up, which can be frustrating for the country holding the EU presidency.

I must declare an interest. Carl Bildt sat on the advisory board of the Centre for European Reform until he became Swedish foreign minister in October 2006, and still attends many CER conferences. He is very much a ‘think-tankers’ foreign minister’: he likes to argue and ask questions, and he brims with ideas. He also works very hard at his job: most weekends, this youthful-looking 60-year old is at some conference or other, debating the most pressing foreign policy issues of the day. And if he is not at a conference he is on a diplomatic mission or at a summit.

His critics view Bildt as an arrogant Mr Know-it-all. But in many ways he is modest. He takes the time to speak to people who are not ‘important’, like secretaries and conference organisers, and not all politicians do that. Furthermore, most politicians will only attend a conference if they are given a speaking slot. They go to give their speech and are not particularly interested in hearing what others have to say. But Bildt is not like that. Every six months the CER and other think-tanks organise a roundtable that brings together European and American diplomats and thinkers. Bildt always turns up, even though he seldom has a speaking slot. He sits at the back taking notes, because he is genuinely interested to hear what other experts have to say.

If Bildt was serious about running for the job of High Representative he would have manoeuvred to win the support of France and Germany. But he has not done that, with the result that both Berlin and Paris are likely to block his candidacy. Germany takes the view that the EU should maintain friendly relations with Russia. So in August 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, the Germans disapproved of Bildt’s comparison of the Russian justification for the attack on Georgia to Adolf Hitler's rationale for invading parts of Central Europe – namely the need to protect a minority. Bildt’s comment was indeed over-the-top and unwise. In fact he has a good network of contacts inside Russia, including some of those in positions of power. Nevertheless as far as several EU governments are concerned, Bildt is simply too confrontational towards Russia.

France is an even bigger problem for Bildt. Just before the recent European elections he gave an interview to Le Figaro in which he contradicted the view of President Nicolas Sarkozy that Turkey is not in Europe. “If we judge Cyprus to be in Europe, although it is as in island along Syria's shores, it is hard not to consider that Turkey is in Europe," Bildt said. That interview made Sarkozy angry and he cancelled a visit to Stockholm. To make matters worse, Bildt does not speak French fluently.

Bildt has also been implicitly critical of Sarkozy’s protectionist rhetoric – he is a true believer in free markets, free trade and the ‘Lisbon agenda’ of economic reform. You know where you are with Bildt – he is a strong backer of human rights in authoritarian countries and he believes that the countries of Eastern Europe should be free to choose their own destinies. He is also an unstinting Atlanticist; if the decision was left to him, Sweden would join NATO. Bildt’s experience in Bosnia has made him passionate about the protection of minorities. At the end of the war in Sri Lanka, when government forces were killing many Tamil civilians, he tried to fly to Colombo to make his point to the country’s leaders. But he was refused a visa.

Many EU foreign ministers would probably prefer a High Representative in the mould of Javier Solana, the incumbent. The Spaniard’s style of operating is the opposite of Bildt’s: he avoids direct confrontations with people, preferring to build a consensus through discreet personal diplomacy. The ideal High Representative would be a figure who combined Bildt’s rigorous thinking and grand strategic vision with Solana’s subtle manner and feline operating skills. But there is probably no such person.

Charles Grant is director of the Cente for European Reform

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