One president for 27 nations: Can Tony Blair lead Europe?

Britain's former prime minister is poised to be the first-ever president of the European Union – a notion that's causing some unease on the continent.

Muhammed Muheisen/Reuters
Middle East envoy Tony Blair waves upon his arrival for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on June 16 in Ramallah. Mr. Blair is among the likely candidates for the first European Union president.

When Henry Kissinger asked in 1970: "Who do I call, if I want to talk to Europe?" he coined the definitive metaphor for the enduring problem of how the nations of the continent's emerging political union could speak with one voice.

Almost 40 years later, he may finally get an answer in the coming months, when the Europe Union's first president is chosen. Among the likely candidates is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The job of chairing Europe's key decisionmaking body, the European Council of Heads of State, has yet to even to be formally put up for grabs. But jockeying for position in a race set to enliven the EU's often mind-numbingly staid politics is under way behind the scenes, according to experts.

The stakes were raised in recent days, when Mr. Blair's hopes were on the receiving end of a coded rebuke from the Swedish prime minister as he assumed the presidency, currently rotating between member states on a six-month basis.

Small and medium-sized countries, including Sweden, "are less interested in a strong leader, because they see a risk that they will be dominated by the big countries," journalists were told by Fredrik Reinfeldt, who suggested that many states would prefer a figure less likely to pursue his or her own agenda and less likely to put the head of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, who also sits on the council, in the shadows.

Undefined leadership role

Despite maintaining a relatively high- profile, post-Downing Street career working as a Middle East peace envoy, albeit with unspectacular results, Blair remains a divisive figure in Europe. Many, particularly those on the left, have never forgiven his alliance with President George W. Bush at the time of the Iraq war.

Nevertheless, his as-yet undeclared candidacy for the European presidency would have some powerful backers from the center-right.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made it clear that the role should be filled by someone "strong and ambitious," while Italy's prime minister, who has hosted the former British leader on holiday, said Blair would be the "ideal personality" for the job.

As the actual job description remains vague, the first holder of the post will be in the powerful position of being able to shape its function.

Richard Whitman, an expert on the European Union from London's Chatham House think tank, regards Blair as an outsider, but says he should still not be written off, adding: "It partly depends on Sarkozy, who he is feeling about it at the time.

"The whole question of the personality is important. You obviously have to have someone with past experience who can stand up to other heads of state. But equally, do they choose a weaker character who is not top drawer and is easier to control?"

Professor Whitman says Britain's prime minister, Gordon Brown, is damaged and lacks political capital. But, he adds: "paradoxically, it does not matter to Blair's chances, although the British government will be nudging things behind the scenes."

Others to watch

As for Blair's still-undeclared rivals, former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez is emerging strongly, although member states may be reluctant to hand a third key European job to another Iberian, given the fact that the roles of EU foreign policy chief and president of the European Commission are held respectively by Javier Solana, a former minister under Mr. Gonzalez, and José Manuel Barroso, a former Portugese prime minister.

Elsewhere, Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, has been identified in the German press as the favored candidate of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who herself has sometimes been tipped as one of the few female possibilities.

Other possible contenders have included the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, although the latter's chances faded after he left office last year with an ongoing official inquiry his past personal financial dealings.

For now, all bets on the job are off until all 27 EU states ratify the union's reforming Lisbon Treaty, in which the presidential post is enshrined. The treaty must pass muster this October with Irish voters, who have already rejected it once.

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