It looks like discussion around Tony Blair becoming the first “President of Europe” is heating up. According to the BBC, Blair is now discussing the prospect with current British prime minister Gordon Brown.
The network is claiming there are forces in the prime minister’s office who are actively encouraging such an idea. It is thought that Blair and Brown are discussing the pros and cons of such a move, and Brown is waiting for Blair’s green light before he voices his support for the idea, which would signal that Blair is actively campaigning for the job.
Blair’s recent activity suggests that he is leaning in that direction. Last month he delivered a speech to Sarkozy’s UMP party conference – in French! Sarkozy has in turn expressed his desire for Blair to take the job.
The position, which is actually the president of the European Council, would be created by the EU reform treaty which is now being voted on by the 27 member states. It replaces the bizarre and unwieldy previous system in which the European presidency was rotated every six months to a different member state, making that country the ‘president’ for those few months.
The new president position would be selected by the Council, which along with the European Parliament and the commission is one of the three branches of EU government. The appointee would then need to be approved by all 27 member states. If the treaty is ratified, the new president would start in January 2009. The president would serve a 2 ½ year term.
The exact shape the presidency will take, however, is not immediately clear, and will likely depend on who first fills the role. Some countries want a high-profile figure to represent the EU on the world stage, while others propose a more low-key, bureaucratic figure. It is thought that Blair would insist that the new president be given broad authority to represent the EU in bodies such as the G8, the United Nations, and with foreign governments around the world.
Obviously the first person selected for the position will be very important in shaping whether the role is taken seriously or not, therefore many argue that a person with a well-known international profile and great charisma and experience should take the role. The problem is there are few people in Europe that match that description. Eurocrats in Brussels often suggest Luxembourg's prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker. But he is unknown outside Europe and even little-known in Europe itself. Or, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso may decide to go for the job, although again he is not known outside Europe. Blair is thought to be the only politician with the international name recognition to pull it off, although Germany’s current chancellor Angela Merkel has also been suggested as a possibility if she loses reelection.
However Blair would face huge misgivings on the continent if he were to go for the job because of his collaboration in the Iraq War. And indeed, he could even face opposition in his own home country to the idea.
An online petition against Mr Blair becoming president organised by the European Tribune group has attracted more than 2,900 petitions. The leader of France's Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, has said: "He has eminent qualities. He has had successes in his own country. But the position he took during the intervention in Iraq means that there is no doubt in my view that he cannot be the one to be the coming president of Europe."
In Blair’s own country Sir Malcolm Rifkind, British conservative foreign secretary from 1995 to 1997, told the BBC: "By his own standards, his [Mr Blair's] whole strategy on Europe failed miserably. He wants to be leader of Europe, but he was more responsible than anybody for dividing Europe over the Iraq war. He failed to get Britain into the single currency, I'm delighted to say…I would be astonished if the rest of Europe sees him as their natural spokesman." Of course for a Eurosceptic conservative like Malcolm, the real reason for him to be poo-pooing the idea may be that he fears Blair's presidency would lead to Britain's fuller integration into the EU.
Another thing working against Blair is that he’s from a large member State, which is bound to upset the other large member states (people from small states are considered to be more neutral). And though he pledged at the beginning of his administration to put Britain at the heart of Europe, after 9/11 he was so distracted by terrorism and the Iraq War that he completely failed on this endeavour. But he also has a lot going for him, including a high-profile international presence that could finally give the EU credibility.
Perhaps most importantly, having a native son in the highest position in the union could make Britain, the EU's most reluctant member, more enthusiastic about its membership.