Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair lost his shot at the European Union presidency Thursday, when the UK withdrew its support for his nomination at a meeting of the group's 27 leaders in Brussels. Current Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy won the job.
Supporters of the Blair candidacy had argued that he was an internationally known figure that would give the new EU presidency the sort of star power and clout that could make it a powerful voice on the international stage.
The recent passage of the EU's Lisbon Treaty created the post of president and foreign minister, with the intent of giving a united foreign policy voice to a group of nations that have increasingly integrated their economies but have strongly independent foreign policies. Until now, the EU presidency has been rotated every six months between the group's national leaders. The new post will be for two-and-a-half years.
But the fact that the Blair candidacy was being pushed by a British Labour government that is expected to be dumped in favor of the conservative Tories in elections next year undermined his bid – as did Blair's past vigorous support for the unpopular Iraq war.
A larger factor at play may have been the fact that a number of European nations (France and Germany) were uncomfortable with creating a foreign policy voice that could swamp that of their own leaders – allowing heavyweights like Britain to drown out the voices of their partners. In other words, Blair was seen as having too much star power.
In the choice of Mr. Van Rompuy, the president will be a low-key center right politician who is well-respected in regional circles as a consensus builder, but is relatively unknown on other continents.
British Labour politician David Miliband, currently the UK foreign secretary, was at one point considered in the running for the EU's foreign minister post, though he insisted he didn't want the job and preferred to focus on domestic politics. Catherine Ashton, a less internationally well-known Labour politician who current serves as the head of the EU Trade Commission, was named the first EU foreign minister.
The exact powers and role of the president are still being worked out. The Lisbon Treaty says the role of the president is to create "cohesion and consensus" among members states, "drive forward" the EU's programs, and "ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy."
Those first two points aren't controversial, but some EU members states remain uncomfortable with the concept of a "common foreign policy and security policy." Before Thursday's selection of Van Rompuy, Sweden, which held the last rotating presidency of the EU, circulated a memo seeking to outline the new president's job that omitted the reference to a common foreign and security policy.
Observers say that as a practical matter, a Europe in lockstep on questions of international diplomacy and war and peace remains as unlikely today as it did on the eve of the Iraq invasion six years ago, when the UK committed major troops to the effort and France considered the war a mistake.
In addition to including international powers like France, the UK, and Germany, the EU's 27 members include smaller nations with dramatically different political outlooks, such as Poland and Sweden.
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