Felipe Gonzalez takes on Blair for EU presidency

Nicolas Sarkozy backing Spanish Socialist former PM

He oversaw the modernisation of Spain and secured its entry into the EU; he ruled for 13 years before falling from view in a 1996 political scandal. But now Felipe Gonzalez, the charismatic former Socialist prime minister is once more stalking the land and being spoken of as a challenger to Tony Blair in the race to become the first "President of Europe".

The post doesn't actually exist yet, and won't unless Irish voters approve the Lisbon Treaty in a second referendum in October. The powers that go with the job are still ill-defined, and candidates are unlikely to emerge until the treaty is ratified. Accordingly, Mr Gonzalez says he is not standing and doesn't aspire to the job.

But for a politician who never in his long career took an uncalculated step, actions speak louder than words. Mr Gonzalez's third-term Socialist government collapsed in sleaze in 1996, and his standing suffered after the "dirty war" in which government-sponsored death squads targeted Eta Basque separatists. His personal involvement was never proved, and time has laundered his reputation. Mr Gonzalez has stepped decisively from the shadows to centre stage and is, despite professing lack of interest, positioning himself perfectly.

He was active in Spain's recent EU election campaign, formidable at 67, filling stadiums with what observers reckoned was the most convincing analysis of Europe's future by any EU politician. "It seems Europe is waiting for Obama to pull the cart, and the rest of us will follow. Europe has been adrift for 20 years," the former premier said in his many public appearances.

The Gonzalez message was not improvised for the soapbox, and chimed badly with the strident leftism of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. It emerges from decades of passionate Europhilia, and months of leading a Reflection Group on Europe's long-term future set up at the suggestion of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

It is M. Sarkozy who is key to the shadowy power game surrounding the future leadership of the EU, according to analysts including Le Monde's former editor Jean-Marie Colombani.

"Sarkozy wants Gonzalez. He doesn't care if he's a Socialist. He thinks he's best because he'd be the embodiment of a strong president; it would make Europe's first leader a man with ideas about Europe... who wouldn't let member governments continue fiddling around instead of moving to the next stage."

Yet it was also President Sarkozy who previously backed Mr Blair for the Brussels job, according to diplomats. The French President changed his mind, M. Colombani told El Pais, because "as special EU envoy to the Middle East, Blair hasn't done anything, and with the polemic over his actions on the Iraq war, Sarkozy decided to convince Felipe Gonzalez to present his candidature".

Mr Gonzalez is a heavyweight with a gift for connecting with people, but – Spain being a middle-ranking EU member – presents no threat to the pecking order. Thus French support remains firm: "M. Sarkozy is in favour of Mr Gonzalez's candidature once the Lisbon Treaty is passed," Mr Gonzalez's spokesman, Joaquin Tajar, said.

"Sarkozy floated Tony Blair's candidacy and didn't get much response, so he decided to look elsewhere," Mr Tajar said. "But for the moment he wouldn't stand, we can discard the possibility for now. There are no proposals, just soundings, the situation is very fluid," he added.

Other member states are thought to be wary of Tony Blair, fearing that he would be a divisive figure. And if someone else is up for the job he may well leave them to it.

Felipe Gonzalez is renowned for never making a political enemy. His decisive but non-aggressive style converted even Margaret Thatcher into a fan. The ideal candidate, then?

"The problem," said Mr Tajar, "is that he can be very resistant". The Catalan Socialist party wanted to raise Mr Gonzalez's profile during the European election campaign by declaring that he would stand for the EU presidency. But he vetoed it. "Felipe needs to be asked," an insider said. "He won't contest a fight, his pride won't let him. He likes a clear run."

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