Gordon Brown travels to Brussels today to press the case for Tony Blair to become the first president of the European Union, but indications from around the continent last night suggested the appetite for Blair was waning and that he might have a fight on his hands.
The Prime Minister spoke out publicly for the first time in support of his predecessor's potential candidacy on the eve of the crunch two-day EU summit. Although the topic is not on the formal agenda – because the Czechs have yet to ratify the Lisbon Treaty that creates the post – the 27 EU leaders will hold preliminary discussions over who should take the inaugural position.
"We have made it very clear that if this position is created – and the European treaty is not yet through – and if the former prime minister Tony Blair comes forward as a candidate, we will be very happy to support him," Mr Brown told Parliament yesterday.
But much will depend on the decisions of France and Germany, the EU's traditional driving forces, whose leaders were meeting in Paris last night.
Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has refused to be drawn on the subject, either in public or in private. Aides insist she has still not made up her mind, but yesterday there were strong signals from Berlin that her new government was shifting its support away from Blair.
A senior politician from her new coalition partner, the Free Democrats, said his party wanted a candidate from a smaller country than Britain. "Europe is too dominated by the big countries. We have known Mr Blair for a long time, but there is sympathy in my party for candidates from a smaller country," said Jörg van Essen, the Free Democrats' chief whip.
That view was underscored by the veteran conservative politician Richard von Weizäcker, a former German president and close Merkel ally. Asked by Die Zeit newspaper, whether Blair would get the job, he was categorical: "It won't happen." Mr von Weizäcker said that one of the main arguments against the former British leader was the "extraordinarily intensive" support he had given George Bush over Iraq.
Blair's supporters, led by his former chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell, have been testing the temperature in European capitals to gauge his chances of success and avoid the humiliation of having his candidacy publicly vetoed.
Nicolas Sarkozy is said to believe that Blair is the most qualified candidate available, but as opposition mounts, the French President is wary of being seen on the losing side.
Yesterday, sources close to Silvio Berlusconi – who a fortnight ago penned a gushing letter of support for Blair – suggested the Italian Prime Minister might be losing the faith. "The Prime Minister still thinks Mr Blair has the right personality to be president of Europe, but there other things to consider as well," one senior Italian official told The Independent.
The Benelux nations are leading the charge for a more low-profile candidate for the post. And here at home, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have both opposed a Blair candidacy.
The ultra-Blairite former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has added his voice to the criticism. Writing in The Independent, Mr Clarke says: "Tony Blair's great strengths are not what the European Union most needs from this new presidential office". He believes the new president needs to focus on behind-the-scenes policy work rather than representing the EU on the international stage.
"The UK desperately needs to rebuild and repair its relationships with the EU. This means a commitment to a fresh start, not least in the minds of the British people," Mr Clarke says. "Blair's... presence would encourage the re-running of past battles rather than enabling a new approach to be fashioned."
Friend or foe? Who the rest of Europe are backing
President Nicolas Sarkozy has been Blair's most vocal supporter for months but his enthusiasm appears to have slackened in recent days. Officials in Paris say that Sarkozy is as keen as ever on having a charismatic and internationally respected figure in the job. He still believes that Blair is the most qualified available candidate. On the other hand, the French president is reluctant to be seen to be on the losing side, and he knows that opposition to Blair is rising within the EU. A Blair presidency would probably go down well with French people but badly with French politicians. The left has always detested the former PM, partly because of his mockery of "unreconstructed" socialism. There is also a strong current of feeling against Mr Blair on the centre right, largely because of his role in "dividing" Europe before the Iraq war in 2003.
Senior German politicians yesterday indicated that Chancellor Angela Merkel's new government is shifting its support away from Tony Blair's candidacy. Official government sources insist Ms Merkel has still not made up her mind, although a senior politician from her new coalition partners, the Free Democrats, has said his party wants a candidate from a smaller country than Britain. Veteran conservatives are also sowing doubt. Richard von Weizsäcker, a former German president and close Merkel ally, was categorical about Blair's prospects in getting the job. "It won't happen," he told Die Zeit. One of the main arguments against Blair, he said, was the "extraordinarily intensive" support he gave George W Bush on Iraq. Germany's other reservations are about Blair's refusal to join the euro, and his decision to keep the country out of the Schengen zone.
The tiny Benelux trio has a barely disguised aversion to Blair, who they fear would bring superstar qualities where they are least wanted. Quite aside from having their own, low-key contenders for the post, including Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker and Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, they fear that someone from one of the larger EU nations will ride roughshod over the interests of smaller member states. Benelux is also among the best pupils in the EU class – part of both the euro and Schengen zones – and see no reason why Britain should be rewarded for its poor European credentials. In a joint memo, interpreted as the launch of an anti-Blair campaign, they insist that a president should have "demonstrated his commitment to the European project", and be someone who "listens" rather than a big talker.
Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero has refrained from openly backing Blair. Instead his objective, according to government sources, is to achieve "maximum consensus" among EU members – in other words, a less controversial contender. Zapatero has made few public comments beyond a vague statement of support for someone with "leadership capability" and "pro-European conviction". But the Spanish premier is not likely to be bursting with personal enthusiasm for Blair: Zapatero was elected in 2004 on promises of withdrawing troops from Iraq – and removing Spain from the Bush-Blair axis. He is also known to think highly of Dutch PM Balkenende. As doubts surface about Blair, some Spanish analysts have begun to speculate that Felipe Gonzalez, the former socialist PM, who deepened Spanish ties with the EU, could emerge as a consensus option.
Silvio Berlusconi was quick to back his old pal earlier this month. "Blair has everything it takes to become the first President of the European Council," he wrote in an open letter published on the front page of Il Foglio. Their friendship dates to the run-up to the Iraq war, with the Blairs enjoying holidays at Silvio's villa in Sardinia. However, yesterday sources close to Berlusconi were decidedly more non-committal, saying the Italian still thought Blair had "the right personality", but that other factors needed to be considered. That seemed to chime with comments this week from Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who said the emergence of Balkenende and Juncker as contenders "changes the picture". And Berlusconi won't even be able to put in a personal word for his old friend, because a dose of scarlet fever means he will miss this week's EU summit.
The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, sees Blair as the perfect candidate: charismatic, well-known globally and pro-European, but not too pro-European. In private, many other countries in the eastern European, ex-Soviet bloc of the EU take broadly the same view. They are more Atlanticist, and less federal, than the smaller countries in Western Europe. Blair was broadly helpful to them when they negotiated their EU accession and, on the Iraqi question, several were closer to the Blair, pro-US position than that of France or Germany. However, the "smaller" eastern countries are being cannily slow to reveal their hand. The position will be part of a much wider negotiation on the top jobs in Brussels. Already schooled in the "European game", they are waiting to see what might be on offer to themselves in return for a vote for Blair – or against.
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