Luxembourg PM fights Blair for EU presidency

Luxembourg's Prime Minister has fired the starting-gun in the race to become EU President by confirming his interest in the job.

Jean-Claude Juncker's move will increase the pressure on Tony Blair to announce his candidacy to become the first-ever President of the European Council. But the chances of a name emerging at the summit of EU leaders that begins in Brussels tomorrow receded yesterday, as moves to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, which creates the post, suffered a fresh delay.

The Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic, the last nation to sign the document, announced it would not rule on a legal challenge to the treaty until next week.

But Mr Juncker's move still marks a turning-point in the tense horse-trading for the presidency and a new foreign minister's post, a process which has until now been carried out behind closed doors.

Mr Juncker, a veteran statesman, told the French newspaper Le Monde: "If I was called to do it, I would have no reason to turn it down." His main two opponents are likely to be Mr Blair and the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, although neither has yet broken cover to pitch for the top job.

Mr Juncker yesterday took an oblique swipe at the former British prime minister's European credentials. He said: "I cannot distinguish the areas where the United Kingdom has given proof of a true European spirit in the last 10 years, excluding defence."

There are suspicions within the British Government, which is discreetly promoting Mr Blair's candidacy, that the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, are cooling in their backing for the former prime minister.

The final decision will be taken at a special summit of leaders next month.

David Cameron poured scorn on the prospect of his old adversary being elevated to the new presidency.

The Tory leader said: "If we absolutely have to go in that direction I would prefer someone who took a view that it was about being a chairman of the Council of Ministers, rather than some all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting president."