Tony Blair gets early endorsements for EU presidency

Posted in Europe | 20-Oct-07 | Author: Dan Bilefsky| Source: International Herald Tribune

Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Gordon Brown of Britain on Friday in Lisbon.

LISBON: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain endorsed Tony Blair on Friday to be the European Union's first permanent president, even as critics questioned how a leader from a nation deeply skeptical of the EU could take over a new high-profile post.

European leaders agreed early Friday to a new treaty for the 27-member bloc. The treaty creates the post of EU president to represent Europe internationally on issues such as climate change, bilateral relations and development. The post could finally make it clear whom Washington should call when it "wants to speak to Europe," as Henry Kissinger once put it.

As rumors swirled at the summit over who should be the new president - with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxemburg and the former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski also cited as possible candidates - Brown insisted that Britain's charismatic former prime minister was singularly qualified.

The new EU presidency is to replace the current cumbersome system by which EU leaders and nations rotate holding the presidency every six months.

"Tony Blair would be a great candidate for any significant international job," Brown said. Referring to Blair's current job as the EU's Middle East envoy, he added: "As you know, the work that he is doing in the Middle East is something that is of huge international importance."

Blair's candidacy for the presidency was also endorsed by Sarkozy, who singled out his pro-EU sensibilities. "I saw Tony Blair the night before last and he is a remarkable man, the most pro-European of all the British," he said. "I don't know what his intentions are. But that one could think of him as a possibility is quite a smart move." He added that Juncker, Europe's longest serving prime minister, was also a good choice because of his long institutional memory.

Foreign policy analysts said Blair, a fervent Atlanticist, was one of the few European leaders with the gravitas to improve the EU's international profile while expanding its influence with Washington. But many also questioned how the man who divided Europe by supporting the war in Iraq - and who is regarded with deep resentment in many parts of the Muslim world - could ever take on the unifying role of EU president.

Others doubted a candidate from Britain, which remains outside of the euro, and doesn't subscribe to core EU values codified in the new treaty, would ever receive wide endorsement. Even if Blair could transcend this skepticism, they added, EU governments might fear being upstaged by a man often accused of hogging the spotlight.

"In many parts of the world, Blair is seen as the most impressive politician of his generation," said Charles Grant, a foreign policy expert at the London-based Center for Reform. "The question hanging over him will be if he has the necessary modesty in order to gain the confidence of European leaders that he will speak on their behalf."

Under the new treaty, the president, who can serve for a maximum five-year term, must be backed by leaders from all 27 member states.

EU governments will also have to choose a new "high representative" to coordinate the EU's foreign policy. The newly empowered foreign policy chief, a separate position from the EU president, will gain control over the EU's aid budget as well as its extensive staff of diplomats and civil servants. Foreign Minister Karl Bildt of Sweden has been mentioned as a successor to Javier Solana, a Spaniard and former NATO secretary general, who currently holds the role.

Europe's leaders hope the new treaty will help overcome the drift which has plagued the bloc since French and Dutch voters rejected a European Union constitution two years ago. Yet the document still faces some difficult hurdles.

The major obstacle is ratification by all 27 governments, a requirement that has doomed EU treaties in the past. Ireland, which voted down the EU's current treaty in 2001 only to back it a year later, will hold a referendum. "We hope we vote 'yes' but we'll wait and see what the outcome is," Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern of Ireland said on BBC Radio 4 Friday.

In Britain, Brown has come under severe pressure by the Conservative opposition and the EU-skeptic tabloid press to call a popular vote that polls show he would be certain to lose. In Lisbon, he insisted that a referendum was not necessary since Britain had won all the concessions it asked for, including retaining sovereignty over judicial, foreign and defense policies. But even before he had returned to London, the Sun, Britain's best-selling newspaper, was already accusing him of surrendering centuries of British power to Brussels "in a last supper washed down with fine wine."

Denmark, which triggered an EU-wide ratification crisis in 1992 by vetoing the Maastricht Treaty, the EU treaty that launched the euro, also will decide in December whether to put the new treaty to a popular vote. Denmark, like Britain, has an EU-skeptic press and EU-skeptical parties with a nationalist agenda.

In deference to countries like Britain, which clung stubbornly to national sovereignty, the revamped document strips out the symbols of nationhood such as a flag and an EU anthem. It also allows some countries to forge ahead, while leaving others behind. Britain demanded "red lines," including guarantees that its employment and social security laws would not be affected by an EU charter of rights, which enshrines the right of European workers to strike.

A deal was reached after tough bargaining with Poland, the largest of the EU's ex-communist members, which demanded greater voting rights.