August 30, 2004
Peter Mandelson, former British Cabinet minister and a Labor Party spin doctor, is the United Kingdom's new European Union commissioner -- set to become the EU trade commissioner. Mandelson's portfolio will put him in the middle of contentious EU-U.S. trade talks, where he will try to smooth over anti-U.S. sentiment. As U.K. commissioner, he will attempt to "spin" Europe to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's agenda and convince the British public that further integration with Europe is the best way forward.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has given British EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson the trade portfolio. Mandelson, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's friend and confidant and a former British Cabinet minister, will take his post Nov. 1.
Mandelson will arrive in Brussels to find a gulf of opinion separating the United Kingdom and the European Union. This is nothing new; since the United Kingdom joined the European Community in 1973, it has distrusted Brussels bureaucracy and considered it inefficient. Euroskepticism in the United Kingdom stands to increase: Recent EU expansion means Britain will see even less of the money it contributes to EU coffers -- some 4.7 billion pounds ($8.5 billion) in 2003 -- reinvested. Blair will want Mandelson to use his public relations abilities to charm EU politicians and keep the United Kingdom at the forefront of an increasingly federalist Europe while trying to sell European integration to a euroskeptic British public.
A veteran Labor politician, Mandelson helped Blair create "New Labor" -- a revamped Labor Party that appeals more to the voting middle classes than to the working class. New Labor's landslide 1997 election victory showed Mandelson's considerable skill as a campaign manager. He became a Cabinet minister in the new government and spun Blair into a second term in 2001, but had to resign twice because of scandals. In and out of office, Mandelson has faced criticism and accusations that Blair relied on him too much -- with the media labeling him the "Prince of Darkness."
Blair made a shrewd political move by making Mandelson an EU commissioner. Mandelson is rumored to have wanted to return to the British Cabinet; however, Blair knows he cannot have him back yet because of public opinion. He also knows continued fighting between the EU and the United States -- and between the EU and the United Kingdom -- is making further European integration tough to sell to the British public. Mandelson could be Blair's savior.
He will be sent to Brussels with the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States in mind. The similarities between the United Kingdom and the United States range from language to working practice, and Britain has acknowledged, in writing, that its security depends upon that of the United States. Mandelson will attempt to calm anti-U.S. politicians in Brussels and maintain cohesion between the EU and the United States -- a crucial role for the United Kingdom, while London has moved closer to Washington's policies both militarily and economically.
The trade portfolio gives Mandelson authority over external European trade -- negotiating for Europe to secure trade deals and maintain trade terms. Tariffs between Europe and the United States have been a constant source of antagonism in a long history of trade disputes -- such as the recent quarrel over tariffs Washington set on imported European steel.
Blair faces a difficult task in trying to harmonize a wide range of economic measures between Britain and the EU -- especially since many continental European countries already are in harmony regarding taxation and currency. Mandelson's negotiation skills and political savvy will be handy in trade disputes with countries such as the United States, where he will be able to talk Brussels politicians and businessmen into calm discussions before the disputes descend into public trade sanctions.
Putting the "spin" on Europe for the upcoming euro referendum and making the EU seem beneficial to the United Kingdom is a vital part of Mandelson's job. The EU's expansion to 25 members will help Mandelson, since he can use his skill to get as many new commissioners as possible to vote with Britain on crucial opt-outs on measures encouraging European federalism -- especially since many new EU members want to retain most of their sovereignty at home. How much bad publicity will follow Mandelson from the United Kingdom to the EU remains to be seen, but chances are his past transgressions will be overlooked and he will be made at home in Brussels.
Blair's campaign in Britain to adopt the euro and integrate further with Europe will need a strong man in Brussels who gives the impression that he is making Europe work for Britain. Mandelson will never be able to completely heal the rifts among the fundamentally different cultures in mainland Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, but he is in Brussels to create the impression of harmony. Mandelson is a salesman who has a tough audience to convince of the merits of European centralization. He might have the most difficult job in the new commission.