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Britain pushes Blair for EU president role

/ Source: The Associated Press

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband insisted Monday that Tony Blair is the leading candidate to become the first permanent European Union president, as others warned his chances of taking the post are waning.

Blair, who stepped down as Britain's prime minister in June 2007, has not officially announced his candidacy for the soon-to-be created post, but has long been considered a favorite.

EU foreign ministers were in Luxembourg on Monday discussing candidates for the top posts once the bloc is revamped under the EU reform treaty. The Czech president is the only obstacle to full ratification of the so-called Lisbon Treaty, which is designed to streamline decision-making among the bloc's 27 member nations.

Miliband used the Luxembourg meeting to push Blair's credentials, arguing that Europe needs a high-profile figure capable of "stopping traffic" in Washington or Beijing as its first permanent chief.

Earlier, Miliband told BBC radio that Europe needs "someone who is going to be a persuasive advocate, a coalition-builder, a strategic leader of Europe's relationships around the world."

"As it happens, the leading candidate is a retired British prime minister," Miliband said.

Charles Grant, director of the London-based Center for European Reform think tank, said recent efforts by Britain's opposition Conservatives to thwart Blair's ambitions have dented his chances.

Blair also faces opposition from countries who fear he could overshadow Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, or alienate those who disagreed with Britain's role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Ties with future Conservative government?
William Hague, a senior Conservative Party lawmaker, recently told ambassadors from the 26 other EU nations that appointing Blair would risk souring ties with a future Conservative government.

"Mr. Hague wanted to leave the ambassadors in no doubt that the Conservative Party is opposed to the appointment of Tony Blair," the party said in a statement.

The Conservatives are overwhelming tipped to oust the governing Labour Party of Blair and Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a national election that must be held by June.

"It seems that William Hague is having a real impact — nobody wants to get off on the wrong foot with the Tories once they take office. That is reflected in the fact that in many European capitals, Tony Blair is no longer seen as favorite," Grant said.

Grant said some European officials now favor appointing a lesser known figure as EU president, possibly Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. Under that scenario, a higher profile politician would be sought to become Europe's foreign policy chief.

Miliband has been proposed by some as Europe's possible foreign minister, but said Sunday had is "absolutely committed" to his job as British foreign secretary.

Brown's spokesman Simon Lewis said "the prime minister and government would be completely supportive" of Blair if he formally announced his candidacy for the job.

But he said decisions on who will take up Europe's new top jobs aren't on the formal agenda for talks in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. Discussions are likely to be held later at a specially called one-day meeting, Lewis said.