Blair's crowning as EU president is no sure thing

Tue, Oct 27, 2009, 00:00

ANALYSIS:SO FAR, Tony Blair has yet to declare his interest in becoming the first permanent president of the European Council, but he is quietly lobbying for the post with the help of one of his former top Downing Street officials, Jonathan Powell, writes MARK HENNESSY

Since leaving No 10, Blair has made millions from a host of business deals and filled a Middle East peace envoy role, even if many of those closely involved in that issue are unsure exactly of what he has been doing. However, Blair is playing for high stakes and could well end up badly humiliated if it does not come off when EU leaders finally decide – regardless of whether he ever puts his hat officially into the ring.

The omens for him look far less attractive than first appear.

French president Nicholas Sarkozy was keen, but he is a fickle suitor and his support has already begun to wane in the face of political realities. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi’s support is as much of a hindrance as a help.

The decision of Taoiseach Brian Cowen to back Blair so early has caused surprise among some EU countries and irritated some fellow small member states which are less than enamoured of letting a big beast loose in the jungle.

For some, the Irish appear to have let friendship and loyalties built up during the Good Friday agreement and afterwards to interfere with raw politics in a world where countries have only interests, not friends.

However, the Government believes Blair would offer Ireland an entree in Brussels that has been hard to get in recent years, following the difficult passage of the Nice and Lisbon treaties, particularly the latter.

The principal difficulty is that EU countries have not decided what they want the holder of the job to do. Do they want a quiet consensus builder or one who will, in the words of British foreign secretary David Miliband, “stop traffic” on world travels?

Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have already made clear they do not want a traffic-stopper, even if some of that is inspired by former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt’s hatred of Blair.

Five years ago, Blair blocked him from becoming president of the European Commission, deeming him “too federalist”, and backed Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso. It is a wound that still festers.

For months, Blair’s opponents, such as former European Commission president Romano Prodi and former commissioner Mario Monti, have worked quietly to undermine his chances.

For much of that time, the group has been despondent, believing that the former British prime minister was unstoppable, but the mood has changed in recent days. “I think the tide has turned against him,” said one closely associated with the effort.

Blair’s nationality is a problem for not just the Dutch, the Belgians and the Luxembourgers, who have made it clear they do not want the job to go to a country on the outside of many key EU policy areas.

Equally, he has troubles because he sold many of them a pup after he first went into Downing Street, leading them to believe he would push to bring the UK into the euro, only to back down in the face of Gordon Brown’s objections.

In addition, the Iraq war – and, most importantly, the way in which he kept his EU colleagues in the dark as he deliberated with then US president George Bush – has left a sour taste and bad memories.

Former Spanish prime minister Felipe González’s interest in the post has wavered, according to some close to the scene, and his desire for a coronation rather than a contest may rule him out.

However, another ex-prime minister, Finland’s Paavo Lipponen, is showing no such lack of desire and his distinctly uncharismatic style could prove a bonus with serving premiers who do not fancy sharing the limelight.

Equally, another Finn, former president Martti Ahtisaari, has in recent days voiced his interest.

Blair’s successor in No 10, Gordon Brown, has supported his appointment, while David Miliband has said such a choice “would be good for Britain and good for Europe”.

Yesterday, Brown’s spokesman made it clear he would “completely support” Blair if the job is there is to be filled and if Blair “expressed himself to be a candidate”. If all of that happened, then Brown would “consult” other leaders.

However, consult does not necessarily mean lobby, and the British prime minister is in no fit state to sustain a late-night Brussels humiliation if others turn on his predecessor, so the support may prove conditional in time.

On Sunday, Miliband ruled himself out as a contender for the job of high representative on foreign policy – a post that should be more important than the council president because it offers a place at both the council and commission tables.

Blair’s chances are helped by the fact that socialist parties in Europe have so far been unable to find a creditable candidate for the foreign policy job, and they have to get one of the jobs – even if his socialist credentials are doubted by many.

The Conservatives do not want Blair, and shadow foreign secretary William Hague has been making that clear to anyone in other EU states who will listen – most recently London-based EU ambassadors and deputies last week. The Conservatives are not the most popular with other EU states, but they are the most likely to hold power after the next British election, if the polls are to be believed, so their views cannot be ignored, even if many would be only too happy to do so.

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