Old Europe’s New Jobs

The elegant second acts of European politicians.

Mandelson: exiled in Brussels

When prominent American politicians descend from the hustings, several well-worn paths stretch out in front of them. Former presidents putter in their libraries, tend their foundations, and ride the lecture circuit. Lesser lights are usually inclined to make gobs of money at law firms (Robert Dole, George Mitchell, and Tom Daschle), hedge funds (Dan Quayle), and lobbying shops (Dick Armey), though a few good souls land as university presidents (Bob Kerrey and David Boren). Those who can’t stand the silence fulminate on cable or talk radio (Joe Scarborough and Mario Cuomo). If all else fails, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government usually has a free cubicle (Jeanne Shaheen, Alan Simpson, and Mickey Edwards have all done time there).

It’s a different world for Euro-politicos, many of whom chart second careers in the supranational realm. The European Union, with a large and hungry bureaucracy, needs commissioners, representatives, and assorted other functionaries. Retired, defeated, or fatigued national politicians are good candidates. And it’s not just Brussels that comes calling. U.N. agencies in New York and Geneva are natural spots for European has-beens, who tend to be less skeptical of the institution than Americans and more susceptible to the charms of multinational bureaucracies.

Herewith, a crib sheet on European second acts:

The Exile: A politician who has become damaged goods at home can be shipped off to Brussels. A hop across the Channel revived the career of Peter Mandelson, now the EU’s trade commissioner. Tony Blair and Mandelson are so close that Blair nicknamed him Bobby, in reference to the Kennedy brothers. Mandelson has also collected less affectionate monikers, including “Prince of Darkness,” and he has been a troublesome partner for the prime minister. In 1998, he was forced to resign after failing to disclose a loan from a colleague for a house in London’s trendy Notting Hill. Blair got him back into government the following year, but in 2001, Mandelson made unwanted history by becoming the first secretary of state to resign twice; this time in the midst of a scandal over whether passports were traded for donations. And so it was off to Brussels for Mandelson, where a $3,000 a month housing allowance provides for nice digs.

The Restless Retiree: Ruud Lubbers, the Netherlands’ longest-serving postwar PM, decided that gardening wasn’t for him when he left office in 1994. After several years of teaching and a stint at (where else?) the Kennedy School, international bureaucracy beckoned. In 2001, he took up the job of U.N. high commissioner for refugees (though he donated his salary to the organization). He may now wish he’d stuck to growing tulips. Earlier this year, he was forced to resign over allegations that he sexually harassed a female staff member.

The Lowest Common Denominator: With 25 countries to keep happy, finding an acceptable candidate for top EU posts is tough, particularly in the contentious area of foreign policy. So, when you find someone who doesn’t raise anyone’s hackles, you give them tenure. Javier Solana has the unwieldy title of high representative for the common foreign and security policy (he would be EU foreign minister had the European Constitution not tanked). Solana rose from Spanish politics—he was Spain’s foreign minister from 1992 to 1995—to become NATO secretary-general. His main qualification was that he was palatable for both sides of Europe’s debate about relations with the United States; the French and the Greeks had vetoed the front-runner, a Dane, for being too pro-American. The discreet and diplomatic Solana has been getting jobs this way ever since. In 1999, he switched from NATO to the European Union, and in 2004 he won a second five-year term.

The Worthy: On this side of the Atlantic, political candidates often inveigh against meddlesome, politically correct lawyers. Europeans sometimes elect them president. Take Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland. Robinson carried off the largely ceremonial role with such aplomb that Kofi Annan tapped her to be U.N. human rights commissioner. Robinson did her best to leave a mark. She visited more than 60 countries during her tenure. Along the way, she chided China for its treatment of Tibet and Russia for its behavior in Chechnya. As a good European, she didn’t neglect the United States. She lashed America—and specifically Gov. Bush’s Texas—for the death penalty. Bush got scolded in his next job, too, this time for the bombing campaign in Afghanistan after 9/11. Robinson also organized the U.N. conference on racism in South Africa, which made headlines when the U.S. and Israeli delegations walked out to protest anti-Semitism. Increasingly unpopular in Washington, she resigned in 2002 and now promotes ethical globalization.

The Also-Ran: European politicians who could never win power at home often get to exercise it on the international stage. So it was for Paddy Ashdown, who is just wrapping up a stint as the international high representative in Bosnia. Lord Ashdown led Britain’s third political party, the Liberal Democrats, throughout the 1990s and passionately advocated intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Before the 1997 election, Blair reportedly dangled the prospect of a seat at the Cabinet table if the Tories were defeated, but in the end Labor’s majority was too large to justify a coalition with Ashdown’s pint-size party. Unable to offer Ashdown a job, Blair got him a government of his own to run in the Balkans.