Mr Who for EU president? EU seeks anyone but Blair

October 29, 2009

blairWho will be the first president of the European Council of EU leaders? Anyone but Tony Blair. That is the only clear message to emerge from a European Union summit, where the appointments of the EU’s two new senior office-holders is not on the agenda but is on everyone’s mind.

The appointment process is typical of the surreal way in which the 27-nation bloc does business. The job is poorly defined in the Lisbon treaty reforming the EU’s institutions, which is expected to come into force in the next few weeks.  But it is clear that most leaders are looking for a consensus-building summit chairman rather than a high-profile president of Europe.

There are no officially declared candidates. But Blair has been the front-runner for months, with the public backing of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and of the British government. He was not in Brussels on Thursday, but his name was at the centre of debate in the summit corridors, with many people determined to kill his phantom candidacy off.

Before the summit began, his erstwhile European Socialist comrades agreed, according to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, that they would prefer the EU foreign policy chief job to go to a socialist. That effectively ruled out the presidency for Blair, since the Socialists have no chance of getting both jobs.

Veteran Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker meanwhile announced he is available for the top post even though he acknowledged he had little chance of getting it. Juncker’s kamikaze candidacy looks like a suicide mission to blow Blair out of the race. The two have been engaged in a long personal vendetta fuelled by Blair’s blocking of Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt’s bid for the European Commission presidency in 2004, and his veto of an EU budget deal brokered by Juncker in 2005.

In British eyes, Juncker personfies “old Europe” — a federalist from a tiny country which prospers as a sort of giant safe-deposit box at the heart of a Franco-German Europe. For Juncker, Blair embodies London’s arrogant detachment from the EU. Despite his pro-European rhetoric, the founder of New Labour never brought his country into the euro single currency or the Schengen zone of passport-free travel in 10 years in power. “This is not about personal glory or an extended ego trip,” Juncker told the daily Luxembourg Wort in a clear swipe at Blair’s undeclared bid.

The likelihood is that neither Blair nor Juncker will find broad enough support among EU leaders, effectively cancelling each other out. That will open the way for a more consensual, insipid figure without either Blair’s globe-trotting stardom or Juncker’s federalist outlook. Several such potential candidates were preeening themselves at the summit.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, a centre-right Harry Potter look-alike devoid of charisma, was doing his best to charm Sarkozy and Merkel during the public photo opportunities. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose second-fiddle role to Sarkozy means he rarely attends EU summits, was seated beaming in the limelight at the summit table in place of the French foreign minister.

Away from the summit, former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen published a timely article in the Financial Times saying the president’s job should be about interrnal consensus-building rather than external representation (in other words — “me, not Blair”). The Baltic prime ministers agreed to seeksupport for former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga as EU president.

In reality, the choice is likely to boil down to one of a handful of leaders sitting in the room. My money is on Balkenende as the grey man with the fewest sworn enemies. Under his premiership, the Netherlands has turned increasingly Eurosceptical and voted against ratifying the EU constitution in a referendum in 2005. But unlike Britain, it is a full member of all EU policies.

That may seem a pretty thin qualification to be the first president of the European Council,  but curiously, no one in Brussels seems to hold Dutch Euroscepticism against Balkenende the way they hold British Euroscepticism against Blair.


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