Patten signals availability to be first EU foreign minister

 

CHRIS PATTEN, the former European Union external relations commissioner, has emerged as a potential candidate to become the EU’s first foreign minister.

Lord Patten, now chancellor of Oxford University, said he would not lobby for the post but would be “very positive” if asked.

Britain now has two political heavyweights who have signalled their availability for new high-profile EU jobs next January, if the bloc’s Lisbon reform treaty is finally ratified this autumn.

Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, is being backed by the UK government to become the union’s first president, with the apparent support of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

The posts of president of the European Council and EU foreign minister are likely to be hotly contested at an October summit – if the Irish vote to back the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum a few weeks earlier.

If Mr Blair became president, it would dash any hopes Lord Patten might have of returning to frontline EU politics. Nobody imagines two Britons holding the two new jobs.

However, Mr Blair remains a controversial figure because of his involvement in the Iraq war and alleged subservience to the US during his premiership. EU leaders may opt for a lower-profile president. Lord Patten might then come into the frame for the foreign post, given his breadth of experience and 1999-2004 tenure as EU external relations chief.

“I’m not campaigning for the job,” he told the Financial Times. “But if I was approached, which I think is unlikely, I would certainly be very positive about it.” Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, enjoys good relations with German chancellor Angela Merkel and is well regarded in the newer EU states of central and eastern Europe and by MEPs.

His appointment would be ironic, given that he is a former chairman of the UK’s main opposition Conservative party, which opposes the Lisbon Treaty.

The odds are against him. Britain will throw its support behind Mr Blair, while some in Brussels regard Lord Patten (65) as yesterday’s man. Some of his views, including support for Turkish EU membership, do not play well in Paris.

France blocked moves to install him as European Commission president in 2004. President Jacques Chirac did not want a Briton in the post, while diplomats claimed his French language skills were not good enough.

Other potential candidates whose names have been mentioned include Wolfgang Schüssel, former Austrian chancellor; Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner; and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former Nato secretary-general. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009)