Author: By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
The former prime minister is seen as the most heavyweight and charismatic of the possible runners in what could be a crowded field. But it is by no means certain that he would win the race.
“He wants it, but he does not want to be humiliated by failing to get it,” one ally said. And Mr Blair is said to only want the new title of president of the European Council if it is a big job, as Europe’s representative to the world. The EU is yet to write a job description.
Mr Blair’s status as the favourite was somewhat bolstered by Gordon Brown’s endorsement on Wednesday. “If Tony Blair decides to stand as President of the European Council, once that job has been created, then of course we will support him,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman said.
But that support is of limited usefulness. There is a growing feeling in European capitals that Mr Brown is headed for the exit. That has reduced his clout and ability to influence his EU counterparts. And other EU leaders remain doubtful about Mr Blair taking the job. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, put Mr Blair’s name forward but he seems to have cooled on the idea. It is speculated that he has switched his support to Felipe Gonzales, the former Spanish prime minister.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is thought to be less than enthusiastic about “President Blair”. She may support Wolfgang Schussel, the former Austrian chancellor, despite likely opposition from France.
Mr Blair faces a number of obstacles to winning the post, which could carry a salary of £275,000 a year.
Firstly, the job will only be created all the EU member states ratify the Treaty of Lisbon. Ireland, Poland and the Czech Republic have not yet approved the treaty.
Also, Mr Blair would not have the support of the Tory Opposition which would be consulted over any big appointments in the run-up to the general election. If the EU president were not appointed until after the election and the Tories were in power, they made it clear yesterday that they would not endorse Mr Blair’s candidacy.
“We don’t think Europe needs a president and we oppose the treaty,” a senior Tory source said. “If the treaty is ratified, we would oppose Blair. We didn’t spend a decade fighting him to suddenly want to see him in this post.”
The Prime Minister might not be too concerned should Mr Blair fail to win the post. If Mr Brown won another term, some British ministers believe, the two men might find themselves at odds. Mr Blair would have to bat for the EU as a whole and could not always side with Mr Brown when he defended the national interest.
“There would be bound to be tension,” one minister said. “It could be the return of the TB-GBs,” he added, referring to the rows the men had prior to Mr Blair leaving Westminster.
Mr Brown had not intended to declare his support for Mr Blair at this stage. He was bounced into it by remarks in Strasbourg by Baroness Kinnock, the former MEP who is now Britain’s Europe Minister. She told journalists that the Government was backing his candidacy. After that, Downing Street could hardly contradict her, even though it insisted she had not made a formal “announcement”.
There is frustration in government circles that Lady Kinnock let herself be drawn into backing Mr Blair.
Her timing was unfortunate: the comments distracted attention (and headlines) from an embarrassing Tory split in the European Parliament. Edward McMillan-Scott, a well-respected Tory MEP, was expelled from the party after he defeated the Polish MEP Michal Tomasz Kaminski to become a vice-president of the Parliament.
The right-wing Polish Law and Justice Party have joined the Tories in a new group after David Cameron pulled his MEPs out of the mainstream centre-right European People’s Party.
Amid Tory disarray in Strasbourg, Timothy Kirkhope stood down as leader of the Conservative and Reformists to give Mr Kaminski the compensation prize of heading it.
So the Tories no long lead the group that Mr Cameron has set up.
Although friends insist that Mr Blair is not angling for a job which does not yet exist, Labour politicians are convinced that he wants it regardless. “He would have ruled himself out by now if he didn’t,” one said.
Denis MacShane, Labour’s former Europe minister, said yesterday: “I am not sure I would advise Tony Blair to go for the job. He would have 27 prime ministers and presidents on his back telling him what to do. But I can’t see anyone else in Europe who has the stature to put Europe on the world stage in the way he would. Blair is the best man for the job.”
The candidates Blair and his rivals
That the former prime minister, who has since 2007 been the Middle East envoy on behalf of the EU, the US, Russia and the UN, might be a contender for the job has been the worst kept secret in EU capitals for months. The idea of Mr Blair’s candidacy was first mooted by the French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, who saw him as a charismatic figure who could rally public support. But many others were aghast at the idea of the EU’s least enthusiastic member state, one which is not even a member of the euro, supplying its leading public figure.
The Spanish prime minister for 13 years, he secured Spain’s entry into the EU before falling from view in a political scandal in 1996. Very pro-European, he is reported to have won the support of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, from Blair. Geography could count against him; if Portugal’s Jose Manuel Barroso stays on as Commission president, there could be accusations of an Iberian overload.
The Luxembourg Prime Minister is in the top three for post but will struggle to clinch German and French support due to a row over tax havens. Could be seen as too federalist by UK.
Everyone’s favourite after her outstanding performance during Germany’s EU presidency. But likely to win general elections with strong majority in September and stay home.
JAN PETER BALKENENDE
Pro-European, liberal and generally liked Dutch Prime Minister. But he has not expressed much interest in leaving The Hague and lacklustre personality may count against him.
Into the fold: Iceland votes for EU
Iceland’s parliament has voted by a narrow margin to apply for membership in the European Union, moving to relinquish some of the recession-hit country’s cherished independence in the name of stability. Iceland became one of the earliest casualties of the global financial crisis. Its over-stretched banks collapsed under the weight of debt; retailers went bankrupt; the country’s currency, the króna, plummeted; and unemployment and inflation spiralled. In a fiercely debated motion, members of Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, voted 33-28, with two abstentions, to start membership talks.
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