World Agenda: EU prepares to welcome President Tony Blair
Quote:One by one, the field of names to become the first president of the EU is slowly clearing, leaving a certain Middle East envoy as favourite for the job.
Should the Irish vote “yes” to the Lisbon treaty at the second time of asking, thus creating the new presidential role, Tony Blair is well placed to benefit. He still enjoys powerful support among the 27 EU leaders and is said by those around him to be interested in a return to European politics as their convener and global representative.
There would appear to be two obstacles: the Irish and Angela Merkel.
Mr Blair has become the top candidate while diplomatically showing little interest in the post. Behind the scenes, however, he has kept in touch with his main sponsors around the EU table: Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, Gordon Brown and the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, with whom he dines regularly.
Mr Sarkozy originally had two favourites for the new permanent post of President of the European Council – Mr Blair and Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who also chairs the “euro group” of the 16 single-currency countries.
Mr Juncker was a serious rival to Mr Blair because he attracted support from Germany, too, which has always wanted a “true European” in the post — that is, someone whose country used the euro and did not keep opting out of EU initiatives.
Mr Juncker has fallen badly out of favour with Mr Sarkozy, however, not least by grumbling about the French President’s brazen attempts to hijack the euro group. He is out of the running as far as Mr Sarkozy is concerned.
Ms Merkel was also keen on Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, who let it be known some time ago that he wanted to work on a bigger stage. But along came the Secretary-General post at Nato and — despite complaints from Turkey over the Dane’s handling of the Prophet Muhammed cartoon crisis — Mrs Merkel was key in persuading President Obama to accept Mr Rasmussen.
With these two out of the way, there seems no obvious alternative to Mr Blair. Furthermore, his role as Middle East envoy for the Quartet has gone some way to restoring his reputation after his support for the invasion of Iraq angered many Europeans.
The new post replaces the rotating presidential role taken by the leader of whichever of the 27 EU nations is chosen to organise the agenda for the next six months. It is supposed to give continuity for countries such as China and Russia, who are said to be bemused that the leadership changes so often and between different political persuasions.
The latest six-month presidency, held by the Czechs, is widely said to have reinforced the need for greater permanency. It has been a disaster in PR and continuity terms, with the Government of Mirek Topolánek being ousted after a vote of no confidence on the eve of the G20 summit, leading to a caretaker administration running both the Czech Republic and the agenda of the EU.
Then there is the eccentric behaviour of the eurosceptic Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, who calls the EU the new Communism and rejects the possibility of man-made climate change — despite the need for a major policy drive towards a CO2 deal at Copenhagen later this year.
No one is keener on a permanent EU president than Mrs Merkel, but she has yet to make clear what kind of president she wants. Some senior figures in Berlin would prefer a lower-key candidate than Mr Blair, who might outshine the leader of the EU’s largest power. But others seem to think that only someone of Mr Blair’s star quality should be considered.
Berlin and Paris will liaise to make sure they get the president they want and one key policy difference is looming which could wreck Mr Blair’s chances. As Prime Minister he was instrumental in relaunching Turkey’s application for EU membership in 2005. Since then the French and Germans have become increasing hostile, with Mr Sarkozy openly talking about Europe’s natural borders stopping well before the Bosphorus.
Mr Blair could neutralise this issue — no one, not even Turkey’s most fervent supporters, envisages it joining in the next five years, the maximum possible length of the first EU president’s mandate.
Does Mr Blair want it? He has said nothing directly about it, but in an interview with The Times in January he was asked: “When will you feel real frustration if you don’t see real progress?” He answered: “Probably this time next year.” It was a hint that he was thinking of moving on — just when EU leaders want their president to start. If the Irish play ball.
There is one candidate who would certainly rival Mr Blair if she ran, and that is Mrs Merkel herself. Her fate, and the future career of Mr Blair, rests with German voters in the autumn.
The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall. - Che Guevara
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