Allies say Blair wants to be president of EU

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is warming to the idea of becoming president of Europe, according to friends, even though he would have to give up his clutch of lucrative business appointments.

Mr Blair's allies have previously played down the prospect of the former prime minister taking the new £200,000-a-year post of president of the European Council created under the new EU treaty now going through Parliament. But friends now describeMr Blair as open-minded and are hinting he would accept the job if EU leaders asked him to do it.

His final decision would also depend on the scope of the job, which has yet to be agreed. Friends believe he would accept a heavy-hitting role as a "Mr Europe" figure but would not want the job if most of his time was to be spent chairing meetings and brokering deals among the EU's 27 member states.

Since leaving Downing Street, Mr Blair has picked up a job with the investment bank JP Morgan reportedly worth £2m a year and is advising Zurich Insurance on its climate change initiative – for an estimated £500,000 a year. He is also said to be earning more than £500,000 a month from speaking engagements. But one close associate said: "Despite the impression given by recent headlines, in his heart he remains committed to public service."

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, is pressing hard for Mr Blair to become a heavyweight president of Europe. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, may come under domestic pressure to back a rival candidate but is thought likely to rally behind M. Sarkozy. Mr Blair enjoys strong support at the European Commission in Brussels.

Gordon Brown has said Mr Blair would make an "excellent president" but some Brown allies are worried the appointment would allow the media to revive the "Brown-Blair split" stories that marked Mr Blair's 10 years in power. But one diplomat from another EU country said: "Mr Brown might not be in a position to stop it. If France and Germany agree, it will almost certainly happen."

Several obstacles remain. Some EU countries may oppose Mr Blair because of his unwavering support for George Bush over Iraq.

Mr Blair has told friends he does not want to be seen to be angling for the job or as the front-runner, which might enable opponents to rally against him. Potential rivals include Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg. Mr Blair may also be reluctant to step aside from his job as a Middle East peace envoy and to abandon his other pet project –setting up a foundation to promote inter-faith dialogue.

Another issue is whether he would have to be based in Brussels and how much time he would spent representing the EU on the world stage.

An unresolved question for EU leaders is how the new post would dovetail with the president of the European Commission, a job currently held by Jose Manuel Barroso, and the EU's high representative on foreign affairs.

Mr Blair spoke yesterday at a progressives' conference in Paris, where his official spokesman said: "He is focused on his current role in the Middle East."

British government sources say speculation about Mr Blair's appointment is "premature" and that the job was not discussed when Mr Brown hosted a mini-summit of leaders from France, Germany and Italy and Mr Barroso at Downing Street on Tuesday.

The new EU president is due to start work next January but the date could be put back by delays in ratifying the new treaty in some member states. Mr Blair was one of the main architects of the new post. He argued that a permanent leader for the body on which EU prime ministers and presidents sit would be more effective than the current system, under which the chairmanship rotates among EU countries every six months.

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