Two of France's senior statesmen have launched an ABB movement – "Anyone But Blair" – in an attempt to prevent the former prime minister becoming the first president of the European Union next year.
Although much of the support for Mr Blair comes from President Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and the former prime minister Edouard Balladur, who is M. Sarkozy's mentor and friend, have declared Mr Blair to be unfit for the job.
Both men say Europe's first president must come from a country which is fully committed to all EU policies, including the euro. Mr Balladur – breaking publicly with President Sarkozy – also says Mr Blair is too close to the United States to be chosen as a "fitting spokesman for Europe". Their views are echoed, off the record, by senior officials in Belgium and Italy. But Mr Blair is said to have some support in eastern Europe, Germany and Spain. Whether Mr Blair actually wants the job remains unclear.
A semi-permanent European president, or president of the European Council, will be chosen by the 27 member governments this year. At present, EU business is organised, and ministerial and summit meetings chaired, by a different government every six months.
Under the EU Reform Treaty now being ratified by member states, a European Council president will be elected for two and a half years by a qualified majority of governments. He or she will take office next year, after all 27 countries have approved the treaty.
The "president of Europe" would chair summits, and some ministerial meetings but have few real powers. He or she would serve with the existing presidents of the European Commission (the EU executive) and the European Parliament (legislature).
But the job is expected to achieve symbolic importance, especially for the rest of the world. For the new post to achieve this kind of weight and seriousness, President Sarkozy says, it must go to a man, or woman, of proven stature. He began pointing to the possibility of a President Blair almost as soon as he reached the Elysée Palace last year. "[Mr Blair] is a very remarkable man," he said in June. "He is the most European of Britons; it would be intelligent to think of him."
Last weekend, M. Sark-ozy invited Mr Blair to address his centre-right party, the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) in Paris. Mr Blair, in French, made a passionate plea for a "collective, united and strong Europe" to face the challenges of the 21st century. This was taken by many of those present as a preliminary application for the new job in Brussels.
Hence the alarmed reaction of M. Giscard and M. Balladur. M. Giscard, 81, told a committee of the French National Assembly he would not be a candidate but added that the job must go only to a politician from a country which "respected all Europe's commitments" and whose public opinion was whole-heartedly European. In other words, no Tony Blair and no Brits.
M. Balladur, who was prime minister from 2003 to 2005, said in the newspaper Le Monde: "To be accepted by all, the president of the Union must come from a country... determined to build European independence, especially in defence and foreign affairs.
"How could Mr Blair embody this ambition when, in the disastrous episode in Iraq, he always clung zealously to the views of the US or even incited them? Mr Blair is, for sure, a remarkable person but he cannot be the symbol of a Europe which wants to exist."Reuse content