x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Choosing the man to lead Europe

The former UK prime minister Tony Blair is proving to be a controversial candidate for the EU presidency.

The former prime minister Tony Blair has not formally expressed interest in the EU presidency but his name has been put forward.
The former prime minister Tony Blair has not formally expressed interest in the EU presidency but his name has been put forward.

LONDON // The leaders of the 27 European Union nations will meet in Brussels today determined not to talk publicly about what they are unable to stop arguing about privately - who should be the first, permanent president of the group. Originally, the two-day gathering had been scheduled to sort out this very matter. However, because the Czechs are holding up ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and, hence, the creation of the new-look EU, the heads of government have had to postpone any formal discussion about the new president until at least next month.

Yet, from Dublin to Warsaw, Oslo to Rome, the one thing on the lips of Europe's political masters is who should get the job. More specifically, whether or not it should go to Tony Blair. The former UK prime minister, currently the special envoy to the Middle East, is being backed by the likes of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's Gordon Brown. David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary and chief cheerleader of the Blair candidacy, said this week that under the Lisbon Treaty, which is supposed to make the EU a more unified body, Europe needed a president who could "stop the traffic in Washington or Beijing".

But smaller countries, notably the Benelux countries, are doggedly trying to put the brakes on the Blairite bandwagon. They simply do not want a president, who will hold the post for an initial two and a half years, to be a high-profile statesman strutting the world stage. Rather, they see it as a low profile, bureaucratic post with the president presiding over the EU summits four times a year and spending the rest of the time moving paper clips around.

The Lisbon Treaty itself does not specify what the president's role should be and, should the EU eventually go along with the Benelux countries' vision, Mr Blair - who has not publicly expressed any interest in the job - would not go for it, anyway. At present, the EU presidency is rotated on a six-monthly basis among the member countries. Sweden currently holds it and Frederik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, is charged with the task of coming up with a shortlist of candidates, which the EU leaders look likely to vote on at a one-day summit in November.

Nothing, however, is set in stone because, before there can be an EU president, there has to be ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all 27 states. And it is on this contentious point that the Czechs are causing all the problems. Vaclav Klaus, the Eurosceptic Czech president, is refusing to sign the treaty until his nation's constitutional court rules on a challenge that the Lisbon agreement is not compatible with the Czech constitution. It had been hoped that the court would rule on Tuesday but the decision has now been postponed until next Tuesday.

Even if the court rules in favour of Lisbon, Mr Klaus might still not ratify the treaty because he is seeking an opt-out that would prevent ethnic Germans, who were forced out of the former Czechoslovakia after the Second World War for collaborating with the Nazis, to reclaim their former properties. The EU leaders will try and resolve this demand over the next two days in Brussels because, until the Czechs ratify the Lisbon Treaty, not only will the question of a full-time EU president remain unresolved, but the legality of the whole European Union will be in doubt.

On Saturday, the mandate on the European Commission - the executive body responsible for the day-to-day running of the EU - runs out and, until Lisbon is ratified, there is no clear, legal basis for appointing a new commission. In the finest tradition of European fudging, however, the leaders are likely to agree that the current commission should carry on in a "caretaker" capacity until the Czechs do finally ratify the treaty, hopefully by the end of the year.

None of this, though, will stop the talk about whether Mr Blair should be the first, new style president or whether it should go to one of the low-key candidates, such as Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg. Other names in the frame include Felipe Gonzalez and Paavo Lipponen, the former prime ministers of Spain and Finland respectively, but none has the stature of Mr Blair on the world stage.

David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives in Britain and likely to be the next UK prime minister when elections are held in May, is adamantly opposed to the former Labour PM because he says the EU does not need an "all-singing, all-dancing" president. Much could eventually hinge on what Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, decides to do. She has kept her own counsel on the issue thus far but the Free Democrats, her coalition partners who control the country's foreign ministry, have expressed doubts about Mr Blair.

Joerg van Essen, the party's chief whip, told the BBC this week: "We have known Tony Blair for a very long time, but I must admit there is a sympathy in my party for candidates from a smaller country." @Email:dsapsted@thenational.ae