Blair backs 'Baby Thatcher' for Commission

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The Independent Online

Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister, has emerged as the clear front-runner to succeed Romano Prodi as president of the European Commission, after gaining tacit support from an initially reluctant Tony Blair.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister, has emerged as the clear front-runner to succeed Romano Prodi as president of the European Commission, after gaining tacit support from an initially reluctant Tony Blair.

While Britain is still formally backing Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, officials in London concede that he has little chance of winning the job. As a result, Mr Blair is unlikely to oppose the appointment of Mr Verhofstadt at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels next month.

Initially, London was sceptical about the Belgian Prime Minister, but Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, reassured Mr Blair over dinner at Downing Street last week that Mr Verhofstadt is an "economic liberal" who supports Britain's drive for Europe to adopt US-style labour market reforms to create jobs.

Moreover, were Mr Blair to block Mr Verhofstadt at the summit, the Belgian premier could retaliate by sabotaging Britain's efforts to achieve its minimum demands on the EU constitution which is also due to be decided at the same summit.

Mr Verhofstadt is backed strongly by France, and winning the support of three of the EU's "big four" countries would give him a commanding position in the race to succeed Mr Prodi. "We may have slightly under-estimated Verhofstadt," one British government source said yesterday. "We are very keen to pursue the jobs agenda and want the new Commission to move on it. He has good credentials to do that."

British officials also point to his track record in handling a coalition government, initially of six parties but now reduced to four. "The skills are similar to running the EU where you have got to keep four or five big countries on board," one said.

This is a sharp change in tone from a government which had gone out of its way to express its reservations about Mr Verhofstadt, and the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker. But, with the Brussels summit just three weeks away, Mr Blair seems to be positioning himself so that he is not isolated, particularly if Mr Verhofstadt's campaign is building unstoppable momentum.

In theory the UK could be outvoted on the issue, which would be humiliating if it had pledged opposition to the Belgian premier. More importantly, Mr Blair may not want to alienate a fellow premier during negotiations on the EU constitution.

Mr Blair may also be calculating that he can strike up a good working relationship with the Belgian premier. When he took over as Prime Minister in 1999, Mr Verhofstadt cultivated close ties with Mr Blair until the two men fell out over Iraq. Not only did the Belgian premier back France and Germany, he also hosted a four-nation summit on EU defence in Brussels, without the UK, last April.

Since then ties have improved and there has been recent contact between the two Prime Ministers. Once nicknamed "Baby Thatcher", Mr Verhofstadt established his free market credentials early in his political career, though he is now seen as a middle-of-the-road politician.

There are similarities between Mr Verhofstadt's political thinking and Mr Blair's "third way" philosophy and the Belgian premier has called for measures to make the EU more accountable.

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