Blair speech sparks EU presidency speculation

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Tony Blair has set out his vision for the future of European democracy as speculation mounts over the identity of the first president of the EU, set to be inaugurated in 2009.

“Europe is not a question of left or right, but a question of the future or the past, of strength or weakness,” the former UK prime minister told a conference of France’s ruling, centre-right UMP party in Paris on Saturday (12 January). 

Addressing delegates in French, Mr Blair said that in a world of globalisation, Europe was about “today versus yesterday – less about politics and more about a state of mind, open as opposed to closed.”

Meanwhile, President Sarkozy said: “When we appoint this president of the European Union, I want us to set the bar high and not aim for the lowest common denominator.” He described Blair as “brave and intelligent”, stating that “we need him in Europe.”  

The Lisbon Treaty, signed in December 2007, creates the new post of a permanent president to head the Union for a once-renewable term of two and a half years, replacing the current system whereby Council presidencies are rotated between member states every six months. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who invited Blair to address the event after first identifying him as a potential candidate for the post last year, told attendees that the former British premier was “one of Europe’s greats”. 

However, Mr Blair’s support for the Iraq war, as well as Britain’s reluctance to join the euro under his premiership, may ultimately count against him, while other candidates said to be in the frame include Bertie Ahern, Jean-Claude Juncker, José-Maria Aznar and Aleksander Kwasniewski (see EURACTIV 09/01/08). 

Moreover, it remains unclear how Mr Blair would balance the EU presidency with his current role as Middle East envoy on behalf of the international community. He also recently accepted a senior advisory role at US investment bank JP Morgan. 

Blair told the Paris conference that “we are much stronger and able to deliver what our citizens expect from us as individual nations if we are part of a strong and united Europe”. He identified terrorism, security, immigration, energy, the environment, science, biotechnology, organised crime and higher education as key areas in which such cooperation was necessary. 

Provided that the new treaty is ratified by all 27 member states, the new president will assume office in January 2009. 

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