Stop him! Blair eyes new role as EU president

After Ireland finally backs European reform, a campaign is under way to prevent the ascent of the former PM to the top job (salary: £247,000 per annum)

Brian Brady
Sunday 04 October 2009 00:00 BST
(getty images)

A pan-European campaign was under way last night to stop Tony Blair becoming EU president, after the result of the Irish referendum made the creation of the powerful post almost inevitable.

The shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, cranked up the pressure against Mr Blair's return to a position of political power, warning European leaders: "There could be no worse way to sell the EU to the people of Britain."

The campaign starts as the Conservatives attempt to head off the embarrassment of David Cameron, if he wins the next election, being forced to deal with the former Labour prime minister on equal terms. Mr Hague is expected to lay bare his party's absolute opposition to Mr Blair during a series of meetings with EU leaders over the coming weeks.

Mr Blair's candidacy has been talked up in recent weeks, even though the post will not officially exist until the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. It was reported yesterday that his former chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, is leading a diplomatic campaign in European capitals to clear the way for his selection.

Several senior European figures, including the former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez and the French Prime Minister, François Fillon, have also made their interest known – but no one has yet made a public declaration.

Paavo Lipponen, the former prime minister of Finland, has emerged as a potential consensus candidate who could frustrate Mr Blair's hopes. Unlike Mr Gonzalez, Mr Lipponen speaks fluent English and although he backed the Iraq war – a decision that contributed to his defeat in the 2003 Finnish general election – he is not as closely associated with the invasion as Mr Blair.

After the Irish Republic backed the Lisbon Treaty yesterday, only the Czech Republic and Poland are yet to ratify it. The Czech Prime Minister last night said he expected to ratify by the end of the year.

The EU president's pay package has yet to be finalised, but it is expected the post will attract the same benefits as the European Commission President, with a salary of almost £250,000 a year. The president would also receive a chauffeured car, a staff of around 20, and a housing allowance, rather than an official residence which was considered "too symbolic".

In an attempt to concentrate minds yesterday, Mr Hague warned that a Tory government could call a referendum in Britain to take back powers from Brussels, even though Ireland's "Yes" vote yesterday makes ratification of the Lisbon Treaty a near certainty. He also suggested the Tories would use a Blair presidency as a tool to mobilise anti-European sentiment in the UK.

Crucially, Mr Blair is believed to have won the support of France, while Germany is said to have softened its opposition. But the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is still thought to favour appointing a candidate from a member-state that has embraced all the EU's key projects – including the single currency.

The former Europe minister Denis MacShane said: "William Hague's threats will be counter-productive. The last thing Angela Merkel or [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy will do is take orders from Hague after he persuaded Cameron to break all links with the ruling centre-right leaders in Europe and embrace hard-line rightist parties."

Mr Blair has played down his potential candidacy, making it clear to UK ministers backing his appointment that he would not enter the race if he could not be certain of winning.

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