Blair's rebirth as a player in European politics not a done deal

 

EUROPEAN DIARY:WILL TONY Blair rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the Iraq war to become the first president of the European Council? This is the question on everybody’s lips in Brussels, where personality politics have quickly taken hold following Ireland’s Yes vote on the Lisbon Treaty, writes JAMIE SMYTH

The former British prime minister has been touted as the leading candidate for the new post ever since the treaty was agreed by EU leaders in June 2007. The British government is backing him. At the weekend British foreign secretary David Miliband said he’d make an excellent choice for EU president if he decided to put his name forward. “We need a strong person at the head,” Mr Miliband told Sky News.

Blair has, in the past, also attracted support from French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a personal friend. “He [Blair] is a remarkable man, the most pro-European of all the British . . . I don’t know what his intentions are. But that one could think of him as a possibility [for president] is quite a smart move,” he said in October 2007.

On Saturday Taoiseach Brian Cowen also offered his support to Blair, saying that if he is a candidate “you can take it that we’d be very supportive”.

Irish support for Blair is hardly surprising given his important role in the Northern Ireland peace process. He has probably done more to strengthen British-Irish relations than any other British prime minister. His four children have Irish citizenship and Blair even managed to issue an apology for Britain’s failure to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the Irish famine.

His strong communication skills, in either English or French, combined with his name recognition among other world leaders, make him an obvious contender for the job. The bookies are cashing in on all the recent speculation about Blair, placing him as hot favourite at odds of 6/4.

But cooler heads in Brussels suggest his elevation to the €280,000 per year job is far from a done deal.

“Several smaller member states are nervous about giving the job to such a big personality and media star as Blair. His name might also be out there too early,” said one senior EU official yesterday, who did not want to be named.

Everyone in Brussels remembers the failed campaign to get former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt installed as president of the European Commission in 2004. Britain eventually vetoed his appointment after months of intense media speculation that he was front runner for the job.

Under the Lisbon Treaty it is envisaged that the new European Council president would chair meetings, co-ordinate work and represent the EU internationally. But the exact parameters of the job have not been agreed, leaving it up to the first personality to define the post. This has prompted concern among smaller EU states, such as Sweden, that a charismatic figure could undermine the two existing high-profile EU jobs – commission president and the EU foreign affairs chief.

Blair will also have to overcome doubts among some of the most pro-European states, which believe a European Council president must come from a state that is fully engaged with the union. Britain has opted out of core EU policies such as the Schengen travel area, key justice legislation and, importantly, the euro zone.

Then, of course, there is the Iraq war. Blair’s decision to support George Bush deeply divided Europe in 2003, a point that has not been forgotten in EU institutions, particularly the European Parliament. A decision to appoint him to the post of president of Europe would enrage segments of public opinion.

There is already an online petition at www.stopblair.eu to protest against a potential Blair presidency.

There is also a new Iraq inquiry under way in Britain. Would EU leaders risk a controversial choice as the first president of the council?

The appointment, which awaits ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the Czech Republic, will need German and French support. The position of German chancellor Angela Merkel will be critical to the decision and it remains unclear whether she will join Sarkozy in supporting Blair.

There is speculation that Merkel might prefer a lower-profile European Council president such as Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende or Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker. Other possible names include former Spanish prime minister Felipe González, former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen, and the current French prime minister, François Fillon.

In the tradition of EU politics the job will be awarded as part of a complex package of trade-offs between EU states over the identity of a new EU foreign affairs chief and the top jobs on offer in the new commission. Whether Blair’s name survives the inevitable horse-trading will depend a lot on what is on offer to EU heavyweights such as Germany and France.