Charles Clarke: Don't give Tony Blair the post of EU President

His presence would revive past battles rather than inspire a fresh approach

Thursday 29 October 2009 01:00 GMT

Once the Czech President comes to his senses the Treaty of Lisbon will finally be enacted. At that point the European Union must move fast to ensure that Europe is a far more effective and powerful voice in world affairs. It will not be easy but it will happen.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are strengthening their alliance and there are reports that President Obama intends to convene an economic "G4", including the "eurozone" but excluding Britain. For the first time in decades the UK now faces a serious risk of moving towards the margins of European politics.

So at this time it is vital that the British Government has a more effective strategy to bolster our role in the EU than currently seems to be there. At the moment attention is focusing on three European appointments – the "President of the European Union", the "High Representative" (or European Foreign Secretary) and the new British Commissioner.

The only realistic British contender for President is Tony Blair, and it is not surprising that many people across Europe support him because of his qualities of leadership and communication. However, his appointment would not be best either for the EU or for the UK.

More than anything, the EU needs a President who will fashion common European positions on vital issues such as future enlargement, climate change, economic regulation and joint approaches to controlling migration and fighting organised crime.

Though some describe these difficult political tasks as "bureaucratic", the truth is that "crowd-stopping" international representation will achieve little unless the EU is coherent and united in these and other policy areas. Blair's great strengths are not what the EU most needs from this new Presidential office.

The UK's relationship with the EU is more shaky than for many years. Its decisions not to participate in the euro and the Schengen zone have taken us away from the centre of discussions on the economy, migration and international crime. Our pre-occupation with British "red lines" against perceived European "threats" sends the dominating signal that we hardly want to be involved at all. Meanwhile, the Conservatives' visceral opposition to everything European is given increased influence by the widespread expectation that they will form the next government.

The UK desperately needs to rebuild and repair its relationships with the EU. This means a commitment to a fresh start, not least in the minds of the British people. Blair's Presidency of the EU would make this more difficult to achieve. His presence would encourage the rerunning of past battles rather than enabling a new approach to be fashioned.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of this assessment, it remains very doubtful that Tony Blair will command the support he needs to secure this appointment and the UK should certainly not be putting all its eggs in the basket of winning the Presidency.

The EU's High Representative is less in the limelight but will be a role of great significance. It is well-suited to the UK, with its strong internationalist stance on matters from aid and trade to military commitment and expertise. A British contribution here would make the EU a weightier player in world affairs.

It seems that there is currently no front-runner for this role from other countries, whereas a number of Brits are well-respected internationally. They include Tony Blair (for whom this role would be far better suited), Peter Mandelson, David Miliband, George Robertson and Paddy Ashdown. Any of these would do the job very well, benefiting both Europe and the UK.

It would be a great failure if the UK secures neither the Presidency nor the High Representative role and it would then be essential for our national interest that the British Commissioner has a front-line portfolio. However, our absence from the eurozone and Schengen areas makes it difficult for us to secure economic or home affairs portfolios, other than trade. The continuing economic crisis reinforces the difficulties.

Moreover the appointment is complicated by the reported preference of the newly confirmed Commission President José Manuel Barroso that the UK continues to nominate a woman, for reasons of overall gender balance.

With the exception of Cathy Ashton, who has done a good job in the brief period that she has served as Commissioner, few names are being publicly discussed and there is little clarity about the portfolios the British Commissioner might expect.

The best strategy for the UK at this time is to abandon the campaign for a British President, to commit strongly to securing the post of High Representative, with one of the many possible strong UK candidates, and to specify the Commission portfolios we would seek.

The author is MP for Norwich South and was Home Secretary, 2004-06

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