Blair facing defeat over EU presidency

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The Independent Online

Ten years ago a beleaguered British Prime Minister vetoed a Belgian as president of the European Commission, only to end up with Jacques Santer - the ill-fated premier of Luxembourg and the only man ever to have to resign from the job. This week, Downing Street may face a similar nightmare as the Government braces itself for a bizarre re-run of history.

Ten years ago a beleaguered British Prime Minister vetoed a Belgian as president of the European Commission, only to end up with Jacques Santer - the ill-fated premier of Luxembourg and the only man ever to have to resign from the job. This week, Downing Street may face a similar nightmare as the Government braces itself for a bizarre re-run of history.

When Tony Blair arrives in Brussels for a summit of EU leaders on Thursday he will need all his political skills to stop the presidency of the commission going to the present-day premier of either Belgium or Luxembourg. Both leaders are committed to European integration and have close ties to Paris and Berlin. Naturally, that puts them at the bottom of Britain's wish list. But, with Tony Blair needing to win concessions over the EU constitution at the same summit, his hand is not strong.

Germany and France have set the pace, supporting Belgium's Flemish Liberal Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, as successor to Romano Prodi, who stands down in October. Once renowned as an economic liberal who even won the nickname "baby Thatcher", the boyish Mr Verhofstadt used to have close ties with Mr Blair. All that went by the board last year when Mr Verhofstadt allied with Paris and Berlin over Iraq, then organised a provocative meeting of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg on defence. The "praline summit" in April 2003 has never been forgotten in Downing Street.

But if Mr Verhofstadt has been front-runner, a lot of money is now riding on Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker making a late sprint from the back of the pack.

Ahead of national elections in Luxembourg today, Mr Juncker denied interest in the commission job, promising to serve again as the leader of the EU's second smallest nation. He could hardly do otherwise as he asks Luxembourgers to vote for him, and Mr Juncker's disavowal of interest has convinced few in Brussels. One official said last week: "France and Germany have two candidates: an official one in Verhofstadt and an undeclared one in Juncker."

The agile Mr Juncker has devoted much energy to wheeling and dealing in the EU, and keeping up a prominent media profile in Germany.

Ten years after John Major's debacle of 1994, some things have changed. This time, in theory, no EU leader will be able to veto a candidate single-handedly; an alliance will be needed to block a candidate. Admittedly, a big country such as the UK could probably stop one individual, but opposing two is a different matter.

Downing Street has cast around in vain for a credible alternative. The British favourites - Anders Fogh Rasmussen, premier of Denmark, and Britain's Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten - are handicapped by their nationalities. The British and Danes are among Europe's biggest sceptics, with both nations outside the euro. Other names include Spain's Javier Solana, EU foreign policy supremo, Portugal's Antonio Vitorino, European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Ireland's premier, Bertie Ahern, his compatriot, Pat Cox, President of the European Parliament, and Germany's Gunther Verheughen, European Commissioner for Enlargement. But none has attracted much momentum.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair's summit priority is the EU constitution and his "red lines": keeping the national veto on all areas of tax, social security, foreign policy, the British budget rebate and most areas of justice and home affairs. He does not want to block a fellow prime minister, only to have to appeal to them later for support on the constitution. And there is little point delivering the black spot to Mr Verhofstadt, only to end up with the even less palatable Mr Juncker.

But the outcome remains unpredictable and will be shaped by two key personalities. One is Mr Ahern,a man tipped as a possible candidate for the commission presidency himself should there be deadlock. The other key figure is Mr Juncker. Mr Ahern told journalists that, were the Luxembourger a candidate for the commission presidency, he would get it. Once the polls close in the Grand Duchy today, watch for any sign that Mr Juncker might change his mind and make the journey to a new office in Brussels - in the greater interests of Europe, of course.

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