Sarkozy drops Blair as ‘Mr. Europe’ favourite

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has changed his mind over who should be the first ever permanent President of the European Council, according to press reports.

Having last year been the first to identify former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the ideal candidate for the job, Sarkozy now favours Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, claims French daily Le Figaro. 

Sarkozy may play the important role of kingmaker in discussions over the nomination, since he will be presiding over the December 2008 European Council when decisions on at least two of the new top EU jobs will need to be taken. 

The Lisbon Treaty, if ratified by the end of the year for entry into force in 2009 as expected, would establish the posts of permanent president of the EU Council of Ministers (with a once-renewable two-and-a-half year mandate) and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It combines the jobs currently held by Javier Solana and Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. According to the Financial Times, intitial discussions on the issue may take place as early as the June 19-20 EU Council meeting. 

According to Le Figaro, Sarkozy changed his mind over Blair as a result of discontent among socialist leaders, who consider the former British prime minister to be too eurosceptic for the top EU job. The British press adds that socialist leaders will never forgive Blair for his role in the Iraq war. 

By supporting Juncker’s candidacy, Sarkozy could place himself on a collision course with UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, according to The Independent, a British daily. The UK does not want to see the EU Council presidency go to Juncker, seen by London as a federalist, but he is strongly supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the paper claims. 

One other option said to be under discussion is that the job could go the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, with Juncker replacing him as head of the EU executive. 

Jean-Claude Juncker is currently the longest-serving leader of any EU country. Through his dual roles of prime minister and finance minister, he is believed to know the most difficult EU dossiers better than anyone else. This is due in particular to his role as head of the Eurogroup, which brings together the eurozone finance ministers. But opinion polls have also shown that few Europeans consider him to be the possible leader of Europe. 

Meanwhile, another strong contender, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, may retire from the race for the EU’s top job, according to Le Figaro. He is apparently not interested in the position of Council President and may instead seek to become the next NATO Secretary General. 

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