Blair's bid for EU president falters at summit

Blairs bid for EU presi

October 30, 2009 11:48
3 minute read.

Chances of Tony Blair becoming the European Union's first president dimmed Thursday when socialist leaders from the continent refused to back their Labour Party colleague. The French also leaned away from Blair over his role in the Iraq war and resistance to British use of the euro - and suggested a woman might make a better candidate. Blair's charisma and international cachet may be working against him, too. In a race where no one has formally declared candidacy and the job is still ill-defined, there are as many nations that want a low-key technocrat as those that want a towering figure who can go head to head with other global powers. European socialists, meeting in the margin of an EU summit Thursday, said they want the new EU foreign affairs chief to be a left-wing politician, said Dutch Europe Minister Frans Timmermans. That choice would effectively ban Blair from the president's job, as leftists cannot fill both top EU jobs that become available next year. The "no" to Blair from continental socialists kept alive a race to fill the posts of EU president and foreign ministers, two jobs created by a hard-fought EU reform treaty due to take effect in January. Blair was an early candidate. His rivals are believed to include the Dutch premier Jan Peter Balkenende, Belgian leader Herman Van Rompuy, Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker and Finnish ex-premier Paavo Lipponen mentioned. None of these men has formally confirmed their candidacies. The process of "electing" an EU president is arcane and secretive. The job description is vague. The EU president is expected to speak with authority on the EU's behalf on the world stage. At home, he or she, says the EU reform treaty obliquely, must "stimulate" and "encourage" European integration. At their summit, the EU leaders sought to figure out what the president will do before settling on a candidate. "We have to come to (an) agreement on what is the exact mandate of this president," said Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai. "Then we can find the right person." Possible candidate Balkenende told reporters, "Speculation happens. The issue was not discussed at the summit." A high-profile EU president could clash with national priorities from employment to foreign affairs. A low-key president might work behind the scenes to improve unity among the 27 nations, but have less leverage on the global stage. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrived at the summit lobbying enthusiastically for Blair, saying his predecessor would make an "excellent" first EU president. Blair's spokesman Matthew Doyle, however, insisted that since the job doesn't yet exist, "there is no campaign and Mr. Blair is fully focused on his existing projects." Opposition to Blair largely stems from Britain's historical aloofness to many things European. Britain is not part of the EU single currency - Blair stuck with the pound - nor a member of the Schengen zone of unfettered travel among most EU nations. In Europe, many dislike Blair for his ardent support for the Iraq War - although Brown insisted Thursday that was "not an issue" today. In Britain, the opposition Conservative Party, which is expected to do well in May 2010 elections, has come out strongly against a Blair candidacy. Gender is also an issue. French President Nicolas Sarkozy thinks there aren't enough women in powerful positions in Europe, according to a French official at the summit. EU Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said, "A woman could and should occupy this position." Former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga and former Irish president Mary Robinson are among women being mentioned. Vike-Freiberga, who lived for decades in Canada, told the AP on Thursday of her possible candidacy: "I am truly committed to the European Union, which I know inside and out. I also have the perspective of experience in other continents."

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