France, Germany, and perhaps Italy – when Silvio Berlusconi takes his mind off impending prosecution – apparently want Tony Blair to be the European Union's first president. And until the Benelux countries mounted a late rearguard action, the deal seemed practically to have been done. Why should a widespread British response have been, at its mildest, "Oh dear"?
Let's not jump the gun here. If the Czechs fail to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, there will be no EU president. Nor, even if the post comes into being, will it be president in the head-of-state way that Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy are presidents.
How much actual power the president will exert is also uncertain: will he be servant or master of the 27 national leaders? As it stands, the job looks set to be more about presence and presentation, offering a belated answer to Henry Kissinger's apocryphal complaint about not knowing whose phone number to call.
Even with all those caveats, however, the creation of this post signals that the EU intends to be more of a force in the world. And the appointment will signal what sort of a force it wants to be. The choice of Mr Blair would send so many adverse signals as to be counter-productive.
To be sure, Mr Blair's is a familiar and affable face. A former prime minister with three election victories under his belt, he is presentable, articulate, a passable French-speaker and a professed Europhile. Still adored in the US, he might look like the ideal candidate to represent Europe.
If the world lived only in the present, Mr Blair's assets might outweigh his liabilities. But there is such a thing as history – as the French and Germans as much as anyone ought to know. And with history comes baggage, which is where the scales tip decisively the other way.
Mr Blair's most blatant disqualification is Iraq, and everything around that war. I am not among those who accuse him of lying about Saddam Hussein's weapons. I fear he believed every word he said – which speaks of profoundly flawed judgement. Then to send troops into action on such a premise suggests not only over-zealousness, but an innocence about the diverse costs of war that ill suits a national – let alone an international – leader.
There is more even than misjudgement here. On Iraq, Mr Blair showed open contempt for the international consensus. Britain avoided flouting the will of the UN only on the tiniest technicality. As EU President, it is not only the Americans he would be dealing with, but the Europeans who got Iraq right, the Muslim countries that objected, and the majority at the UN. What credibility would he command?
Iraq, however, is by no means all that disqualifies Mr Blair from the EU presidency. As a first-term Prime Minister with a pro-Europe manifesto and a record majority, Mr Blair dismally neglected to follow through. He failed to capitalise on his victory to take the battle to the Eurosceptics, ceding the ideological territory without a fight.
Proudly, foolishly aloof, Britain remains outside the European mainstream. We are not in the Eurozone (where we might have been sheltered from the worst of the financial storms). We have not signed up to the protections of the Schengen agreement (which might have speeded pan-European immigration and anti-terrorism policies into being). Mr Blair stood by while Little Englanders vaunted British exceptionalism. Why should the EU squander its euros on a president who lacked the courage of his convictions when he had the power?
And there is an ostensibly smaller, but still telling, objection. As Prime Minister, Mr Blair presided over the – perhaps fatal – degradation of political language. Blair-speak encouraged politicians not to say what they meant and not to mean what they said. The EU is skilled enough in these dark arts. By choosing Mr Blair, it would signal a preference for smooth style over hard substance. In that case, they would deserve each other.
You could argue, on the basis of no evidence at all, that Mr Blair might be a better leader because of his mistakes: more cautious about intervention, more culturally aware, more direct in his public discourse. More pertinently, you could ask whether "star quality" is what the EU needs in its first president. Low-key grafters in key EU posts have created a situation where the world is begging for the EU to do more. Better healthy demand than over-supply.
A while back, I asked – in this very space – why France's technocratic elite held so many senior international posts, Britons held so few. Now that a Briton is finally in the frame for a potentially powerful job, it is the saddest of ironies that it is the wrong Briton, and probably the wrong job.Reuse content