October 16, 2009 / 9:55 AM / 10 years ago

Blair's star fades in EU leadership race

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Tony Blair may be odds-on favourite with bookmakers to become the first president of the European Council of EU leaders but his star is fast fading, according to analysts and diplomats in Brussels.

Former British Prime Minister and Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair testifies at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "The Middle East; The Road to Peace" on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 14, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

For weeks, the former British prime minister has been the front-runner for the post created in the 27-nation bloc’s Lisbon Reform Treaty, which still awaits the signature of eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus to come into force.

But 56-year-old Blair’s chances plummeted this week when the three Benelux countries and Austria raised objections and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, his initial sponsor, said he would have a hard time getting the job because Britain had not joined the euro single currency.

The former British Labour Party leader is still 4/6 favourite with bookmakers such as Paddy Power and Ladbrokes. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, influential leader of the EU’s biggest country, has not expressed a public preference but is thought to be unenthusiastic about Blair.

Brussels insiders are talking of Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen or former Irish President Mary Robinson as more consensual lower-profile possible alternatives.

Merkel is close to former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, whom the French still fault for forming a coalition with far-right anti-immigration populist Joerg Haider, and to Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, seen as too much of an old-style federalist by the British and east Europeans.

NO EURO, NO PRESIDENT

The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg circulated a joint paper outlining their vision of the new president, which damned Blair without mentioning him by name.

“It is a direct reference to Blair not being the right candidate for the job since Britain does not fully encompass all of the EU’s policies and characteristics,” a Benelux diplomat told Reuters. London is not a member of the euro zone nor of the Schengen zone of passport-free travel, and has opt-outs from other policy areas such as justice and home affairs.

Sarkozy told the newspaper Le Figaro, “Personally I believe in someone who embodies a politically strong Europe. But the fact that Great Britain is not in the euro remains a problem.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he would back Blair’s candidacy, but the former premier, who has been the international community’s envoy to the Palestinians for the last two years, has yet to put himself forward.

“How can a man who professed to be bored rigid when he attended EU summits in Brussels really be interested in such a job?” Hugo Brady, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London, told Reuters.

Jockeying will intensify ahead of an October 29-30 EU summit expected to discuss the key jobs of president and EU foreign policy chief. It remains unclear what powers will be vested in each job, something that may be resolved only when the personalities are chosen and take office.

Polish, Swedish and Austrian officials have said they do not favour a high-profile, high-powered president. Critics also point to Blair’s unpopularity over the Iraq war and his close relationship with former U.S. President George W. Bush.

“I always thought Blair was too divisive politically with other member states,” Brady said.

PERMANENT WARFARE

Friction between Blair and the Conservative Party, which opposes his nomination, has raised misgivings about how he would manage relations with London if David Cameron’s party wins power as expected next year.

“Britain and Brussels would be in a state of permanent warfare,” a Conservative official in the European Parliament said.

EU leaders must balance the north and south of Europe, the left and right of the political spectrum, large and small member states and possibly gender in making the key appointments.

“Jan Peter Balkenende is the likeliest candidate so far since he doesn’t offend anyone and has been around for quite a while,” Brady said. But a German diplomat said Merkel sees the Dutch conservative as too polarising and not open to compromise.

Ireland’s Robinson has some support as the only woman in the race and a human rights campaigner. But the former U.N. Human Rights Commissioner has never run a government or attended EU summits.

Editing by Paul Taylor and Ralph Boulton

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