After two weeks of mounting speculation, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has ruled himself out as a candidate for one of the European Union's new top jobs. In a BBC interview he said that he was "committed" to his current job and "not available" to be considered for the role of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs.
In excluding himself, however, Mr Miliband went on to give new life to another piece of speculation – about the, so-far undeclared, candidacy for the top job of Tony Blair, which he described as "good for Britain and for Europe". The former British Prime Minister has been in the frame for the post of EU President ever since it was first mooted, and neither he, nor anyone close to him, has done anything to discourage the idea that he might be interested.
Only a couple of months ago, the post seemed almost to be his for the asking, with the French President and the German Chancellor apparently in agreement about backing Mr Blair. The Italian Prime Minister then made clear that he, too, would favour a Blair presidency, even as the French and German leaders' enthusiasm seemed to cool.
We leave others to judge whether Silvio Berlusconi's support should be seen as an asset or a liability to Mr Blair. The point is that the former Prime Minister's suitability needs to be judged on its own merits. And, superficially, it might seem an attractive option. Good for Britain, in that it would place a British Europhile at the heart – and at the head – of Europe, where Mr Blair always said he wanted Britain to be. And good for Europe in that Mr Blair's worldwide recognition would raise Europe's profile on the global map.
But there are compelling reasons to believe that a Blair presidency would not be nearly as good as it might at first appear, either for Britain or for the EU. The EU's first president needs to command a consensus. Yet the war with Iraq, and, more generally, Mr Blair's closeness to George Bush, made the British prime minister a highly divisive figure in his home country and abroad. Forced to choose between his major EU allies and the US, he chose the US. That will not soon be forgotten. Regardless of how good a European he perceives himself, Mr Blair will not be seen as such by many Europeans.
Even without Iraq, Mr Blair's qualifications look shaky. Would it be right, we wonder, for the first EU President to carry the passport of a nation that has not signed up to such key policies as the single currency or to the Schengen Agreement, and has made its semi-detached arrangements a point of national pride? As Prime Minister, Mr Blair made no serious effort to bring Britain more into line with Europe, appearing to accept – despite his huge first-term majority – that to be part of Europe's "ever closer Union" was not in Britain's national interest.
The advantages for Britain of having one of our own in the top job are also questionable. It could simply absolve Britain of the responsibility to be a better EU team player. But the desirability of the celebrity factor is also overblown. Mr Blair has always talked a good talk. But to insist, as Mr Miliband did yesterday, that the EU President should be someone for whom "the traffic stops" when he or she lands in Beijing, Washington or Moscow, risks undervaluing the very strengths that have made the EU so admired around the world. Should not substance and hard graft, plus consensus, be the distinguishing features of the first EU President? If so, Tony Blair is the wrong man for the job.Reuse content