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Push for Blair as new EU president

FT.com | June 16, 2007
George Parker in Brussels, John Thornhill and James Blitz

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, could end up swapping Downing Street for a job as the first full-time European Union president, under a plan being actively touted by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president.

Mr Sarkozy is understood to have discussed the idea with other EU leaders ahead of next week's European summit, Mr Blair's last major international event as prime minister.

His support for Mr Blair taking on a big European job is a remarkable sign of Anglo-French rapprochement since Mr Sarkozy replaced Jacques Chirac as president last month.

German diplomats say Mr Sarkozy put his plan to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, while EU officials say the French president has also touted his idea around other capitals, including Madrid. But the British prime minister remains unpopular with governments in countries such as Italy and Spain, which opposed the Iraq war. Mr Blair's failure to take Britain into the euro will also count against him.

Mr Blair's aides admit that Mr Sarkozy and other EU leaders have suggested the idea, but Downing Street insisted that Mr Blair was standing down from frontline politics on June 27. He has denied interest in the job.

Number 10 said talks on “theoretical” jobs formed no part of sensitive negotiations on a new treaty, which aims to establish an EU president and foreign minister in 2009. The new role of president of the European Council – representing the bloc's 27 member states – would be a permanent replacement for the six-monthly rotating presidency of the EU.

One of Mr Sarkozy's allies said they could not confirm the president was backing Mr Blair, but expressed support for the idea: “Why not? He is qualified for it. We want a politically strong Europe. We want a president who is credible.”

The president would have few formal powers, but would give the EU strategic leadership and represent the bloc on the world stage on issues such as climate change, bilateral relations and development in conjunction with the new foreign minister.

An FT/Harris opinion poll, out on Monday, suggests Mr Blair remains a divisive figure, with 64 per cent of Germans, 60 per cent of Britons and 53 per cent of French respondents saying he would not be good for the job.

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