It has not been made official yet but it’s already doing the rounds of the media both here in France and across the channel in Britain. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is apparently not going to back former British prime minister, Tony Blair, as a candidate to become the first president of the European Union.
Instead Sarkozy is thought be ready to throw his weight behind the prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker.
That should come as a relief to many a committed Europhile. During his decade in office Blair did little to move Britain any closer to the heart of EU policy making. On the contrary, if anything he pandered to a domestic public that had been force-fed euroscepticism for far too long.
Blair showed no political will for adopting a common currency, dragging his heels to such an extent that Britain still remains outside of the Eurozone – a position which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
He also resisted adapting Britain’s justice system to meeting European standards and kept the country outside of the passport-free Schengen zone. In other words Blair hardly had the credentials of a truly committed European,
Then of course there was his perceived “poodling” to US president George W. Bush during the invasion of Iraq, which saw him out of step with the EU’s other two political and economic powerhouses, France and Germany
It might seem somewhat extraordinary that Sarkozy should have put Blair’s name forward in the first place and on the surface at least this latest move marks an about turn for the French president. Just last year he declared Blair’s possible candidacy as a “smart move.”
But that might have been a combination of the rush Sarkozy had from being newly elected – remember he was very much in his omnipresent, firing-on-all-fronts-simultaneously stage - and an attempt to flex his muscles as the new kid on the block.
Dropping support now for Blair though isn’t necessarily a “new” Sarkozy in action. Ever the consummate politician, he would have realised from the outset just how unlikely he was to succeed with proposing Blair. And his apparent about turn could also be interpreted as a calculated move to assert his authority at just the moment when France is preparing to take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on July 1.
Sarkozy will be eager to get the timetable rolling along before the end of the year and wrapping up agreement of a common candidate could well help remove hurdles to the process whereby all 27 EU member states have to ratify the Lisbon treaty.
It’s a watered-down version of an earlier proposal for a European constitution, which was rejected by both French and Dutch voters.
Under its proposals a new president would be appointed for two –and –a half years, chairing EU summits, and taking on some of the functions of the current presidency, held on a rotating six-month basis by EU heads of government.
The president would also represent the EU on common foreign and security policy.
Although Sarkozy is now said to favour Juncker, the current president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Baroso, cannot be ruled out either.
There’s likely to be a fair amount of horse-trading over the coming months with perhaps a compromise candidate being the final option. That is after all the way things have always happened in the past in a smaller EU and enlargement is probably only going to make it a more vital component for reaching an agreement.
Whatever happens, Sarkozy will have his work cut out.
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