Tony Blair, the EU president no one really wants

( TIMES ONLINE)   The reluctant vote in favour of further European integration by the Irish this weekend may usher Tony Blair into a new role as titular head of the European Union — despite most of Europe being reluctant to have him.

The former prime minister is the leading candidate to become the European Union president for a want of alternatives rather than any enthusiasm.

With the Irish having finally ratified the Lisbon treaty, all that remains is for the Czech and Polish presidents to sign it and authorise the creation of two new key posts in the EU hierarchy: the president of the European council of heads of state, popularly known as the EU president, and that of high representative for common foreign and security policy, in effect a foreign minister.

The Swedish prime minister, who holds the rotating presidency of the EU, indicated last week that he wanted the president and foreign minister to be appointed by the end of this month.

Blair owes his 6-4 odds for the job to the fact that the offices will probably be divvied up between the social democrat and conservative blocs among the EU heads of state. Although Blair appears to be disliked by all parties, especially by his supposed allies on the left, he may end up being elected because of the lack of another suitable candidate from the social democrat group.

Only two other possible social democratic candidates have emerged — Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, and Felipe Gonzalez, a former prime minister of Spain — and neither has the international clout of Blair. The same is true of the potential conservative candidates Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, and Jan Peter Balkenende, his Dutch equivalent.

The president will be elected by all 27 EU leaders, but the attitude of France and Germany is crucial. French diplomats last week indicated that Blair remained the preferred choice of President Nicolas Sarkozy, putting the ball into the court of Angela Merkel, the newly re-elected German chancellor. Blair is disliked intensely by Berlin for his role in the Iraq war and his perceived failure to contribute to Britain’s European integration.

“The only thing he cared about during his premiership was the City and that mentality has led to the current global crisis,” said Michael Gahler, an MEP from Merkel’s Christian Democrat party. “He is good at making speeches but he does not deliver.”

However, the Germans consider the post of the president to be far less significant than that of the foreign minister, who will also be vice-president of the commission and, in effect, be able to shape a common foreign and security policy and have leverage over commissioners addressing other areas.

Although her party’s favourite is said to be Juncker, Merkel, like Sarkozy, will be concerned with keeping at least a relatively pro-EU British politician in the spotlight.

There is also no love lost between Merkel and the Tory party after the schism in the conservative bloc of the European parliament orchestrated by David Cameron’s party. The pleas of William Hague, the Tory shadow foreign secretary, in an interview yesterday that appointing Blair was “the worst way to sell the EU to the people of Britain” will have fallen on deaf ears in Berlin.

If appointed, Blair would have a cabinet of up to 20 staff members as well as the thousands of EU civil servants. Under the Lisbon treaty the president’s powers are limited, however, and the office largely ceremonial: the incumbent will chair the sessions between the heads of the 27 EU member states, where decisions are made only by consensus. Not being a head of state, he will not be equal among them.

Other duties will include representing Europe at presidential level, according to the Lisbon treaty. He would receive €270,000 (£247,00) a year and be eligible for an annual housing allowance of £37,000, plus other perks.

Blair’s instinct would naturally be to expand his remit and assert himself against the commission. But the presidential term of 2Å years, renewable once, provides little time in which to act.

One last factor is standing in the way of Blair and the EU leaders. While the Czech and Polish parliaments have ratified the Lisbon treaty, it awaits the signature of their respective presidents. Lech Kaczynski of Poland has announced that he will complete the process, but his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Klaus, is refusing to do so.

The Eurosceptic Klaus is understood is to be planning to hold out until after the British general election next year. If the Tories are elected and the treaty remains unratified they have pledged to hold a referendum. It is widely expected that would lead to the treaty being thrown out.

The whole process would begin again. One reluctant Czech would have scuppered the ambitions of Blair, and of the EU integrationists.

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