Blair for EU president? Don’t hold your breath

July 15, 2009

The British government has chosen a strange time to announce its support for former Prime Minister Tony Blair for the not-yet-existent job of President of the European Council. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly touted Blair as a good candidate, and his name is among a handful discussed among EU diplomats. But there was no obvious reason for Europe Minister Glynnis Kinnock to go public with a British candidacy now.

For one thing, the vacancy will only arise if Irish voters approve the Lisbon Treaty at the second time of asking on Oct. 2, and the Czech and Polish presidents then agree to sign it. Touting candidates now might seem to be taking the Irish for granted and may not go down well in Dublin.

Traditionally, the first runners out of the starting blocks do not always win top EU posts. The earlier they are named, the more time there is to build a coalition to block them. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the front-runner for European Commission president in 2004, was a prominent victim of early candidate syndrome. Britain and its allies had time to torpedo the Belgian federalist. The eventual winner, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso, was not even mentioned in the first round.

Blair has a track record of leadership, is pro-European, respected in Washington, Moscow and Beijing, and enjoys Europe-wide name recognition. His middle-of-the-road politics make him acceptable to a broad political spectrum. But he also comes with the baggage of the 2003 Iraq war, which several key EU states opposed, and which was widely unpopular across Europe. He has achieved little in his latest role of Middle East envoy, helping prepare for a Palestinian state. And to some, particularly on the continental European left, he embodies the wild years of deregulation and casino capitalism in London, widely blamed for the financial crisis.

Many European leaders would prefer a lower-profile consensus-builder rather than a charismatic leader as non-executive chairman of their quarterly summits. Other names in circulation include former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and veteran Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. The job description could also fit former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, a subtle compromise builder who, like Blair and Gonzalez, is a centrist member of the Socialist political family.

If the Lisbon treaty is ratified, the 2-1/2-year presidency of the European Council will be part of a package-deal along with the jobs of EU foreign policy high representative. Assuming that Barroso, a conservative, is confirmed by the European Parliament as Commission president in September, there must also be a balance between left and right, large and small countries, and north and south of the EU. The east already has its consolation prize with the election of former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek as president of the European Parliament.

The British may have more hope of securing the influential but low-profile post of secretary-general of the EU Council. Veteran French diplomat Pierre de Boissieu has held this pivotal role for a decade and it has also been promised to the Danes, the unlucky candidates last time round.

What do you think of Blair as president of the European Council? And what do you think Britain is up to in announcing his candidacy now?


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