By Patrick Wintour
I’ll be president of Europe if you give me the power – Blair
Tony Blair has been holding discussions with some of his oldest allies on how he could mount a campaign later this year to become full-time president of the EU council, the prestigious new job characterised as “president of Europe”. Blair, currently the Middle East envoy for the US, Russia, EU and the UN, has told friends he has made no final decision, but is increasingly willing to put himself forward for the job if it comes with real powers to intervene in defence and trade affairs.
Blair, who is being actively promoted by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, recognises he would need to abandon his well-paid, private sector jobs if he won. His wife Cherie – often portrayed as seeking ever more wealth and well-paid consultancies for her husband – is understood to be supportive of him accepting the job.
Some Blair allies also say that he now recognises that as envoy in the Middle East he is not going to be allowed to become the key player in furthering Israeli-Palestinian talks this year, and will be reduced to a role of supporting political development in Palestine and boosting its economy.
The president of the European council of ministers is a post created under the Lisbon treaty. The president will be the permanent chair of the council of ministers, Europe’s chief decision-making body.
Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Downing Street chief of staff, is among the former lieutenants he has met to discuss a bid for the European role.
Some senior figures believe he could yet be a loser in the carve-up of four big European jobs due to be distributed at the end of the French presidency in the second half of this year. Some claim that if the commission president, José Manuel Barroso, wanted to remain in post for a second term, it would be difficult for Blair, a political ally and previous advocate for Barroso, to hold the parallel, prestigious European council job.
Decisions also have to be made on the appointment of a new, “high representative” on foreign policy, and the post of president of the European parliament. Smaller EU countries are sensitive about key jobs being taken by leading figures from larger countries, especially from one that is not part of the eurozone or the Schengen free-movement area, and that actively supports Turkish membership, as Britain has. Some French socialists have already come out against Blair, citing his role in the war in Iraq. Former French president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing has also expressed his opposition.
It is thought that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is not persuaded of the advantages of a Blair presidency. The Christian Democrats have recently been politically weakened in state elections, and fear a Blair presidency might strengthen the German Social Democrats. Neither the Germans nor the French would push Blair if they believed his appointment was going to be opposed by Gordon Brown.