Any hope Tony Blair had of becoming the first President of the European Union were dashed today as France and Germany signalled that they had an alernative candidate and would prefer not to have Blair in the chair.
His support of George Bush and the Iraq war provide one set of reasons for his rejection, but his smooth talking and spin-doctored presentation of policies were just as significant. Newly re-elected Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel led the opposition and persuaded Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who had previously supported Blair, to change his mind. Gordon Brown’s strong support probably did not help.
The new candidate who has secured the German and French support is Dutch premier Jan Peter Balkenende, now widely seen as the new favourite. While Balkenende vigorously denies any interest in the position, leaked conversations make clear that he is.
The Presidency of the European Union is a new position called for in the Lisbon Treaty, likely to be ratified next week, once the Czech Republic finalizes some special arrangements agreed to this week in a meeting of the EU’s leaders. The Czech constitutional court will rule on whether or not the treaty is legal or whether it breaches the Czech constituion on Thursday, 5th November.
The role of the President is to be chair of the leaders meeting and to be the public face of the EU between these meetings. The concern with Blair was that he was not seen as a Chair, more as a Chief Executive.
Britain may still get something from the situation. David Milliband,currently Britain’s foreign secretary, is now widely favoured for the position of first EU Foreign Minister, a position also called for in the Lisbon Treaty. Milliband, who many see as a potential leader of the Labour Party after Gordon Brown’s departure following his expected defeat at the next British general election, is young (forty four), seen as an effective communicator and mediator and has performed admirably as Britain’s foreign secretary. He and his brother, Ed Milliband, are the first siblings to serve at the same time in the British cabinet since Neville and Austin Chamberlain.
Blair will be disappointed. He had worked hard to secure this appointment. Its yet a further indication that his personality and performance are now seen as barriers rather than assets. Some have suggested that his preoccupation with religion in public life and his falure to make an impact on the middle east peace process, which is a key concern for him in his role as a Middle East Envoy for the “quartet” of interested parties (US, UN, EU and Russia), are factors which also weighed against him. He is also seen by some, including the Czech President, as an intellectual light-weight.
The decision on who will hold the Presidency and Foreign Minister roles will be made by the leaders of the EU within weeks of the Lisbon Treaty being approved.