Crises send Blair top of EU presidency list

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While the European Union grapples with its latest international crisis over gas supply and the Israeli incursion into Gaza, EU officials and diplomats seem more determined than ever to improve the chances of Tony Blair becoming EU president.

Impressed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s performance at the head of the EU during his country’s presidency when the bloc faced daunting challenges such as the financial crisis and the war between Russia and Georgia, key EU players are now calling for a big name like the former UK prime minister to steer Europe through future challenges, according to today’s Financial Times.

“Sarkozy concentrated minds,” an EU diplomat was reported as saying. “He made a lot of us think, ‘When the going gets rough, you’ve got to have a big person in this job’.”

The post of a permanent president to head the Union for a once-renewable term of two-and-a-half years was created by the Lisbon Treaty, replacing the current system of rotating Council presidencies between member states every six months. The debate is still premature, as Ireland and the Czech Republic, current holder of the presidency, are yet to ratify the text. Filling the post would thus become an issue in 2010 at the earliest, with Ireland only expected to hold a second referendum on ratifying the treaty towards the end of the year.

Previously, names such as Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, have been mentioned (EURACTIV 09/01/08), but it now seems that policymakers are increasingly inclined to fill the position with a prominent figure from a larger member state. A year ago, Sarkozy was Blair’s biggest supporter for the job, calling him “one of Europe’s greats”. He was later reported to have ceased promoting the former UK prime minister in favour of Juncker (EURACTIV 07/05/08).

Blair has been actively seeking influence on the international scene, despite accusations that his star has faded since leaving office in the UK. Last Thursday (8 January), he appeared alongside Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling for a “new capitalism” at a Paris conference, and he has been meeting with the Israeli government and the Egyptian President to help find a solution to the Gaza conflict as Middle East envoy on behalf of the quartet (the EU, US, UN and Russia).

One of the main arguments cited against Blair’s nomination is his close relationship with outgoing US President George W. Bush. Mr. Blair will collect the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, in the White House on Tuesday (13 January). 

Nevertheless, Lord Levy, the former Middle East envoy, was reported as saying that Blair’s influence over President Bush was only “peripheral”. Reservations regarding his tendency to prioritise transatlantic relations or failure to commit the UK to adopt the euro are now diminishing among EU diplomats, who appear to be beginning to recognise him as a European star at global level.

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