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Blair for EU president? Maybe too famous

Few doubt that Tony Blair has flair and cachet. That might well work against the former British leader as leaders started mulling Thursday who should become the European Union's first president.
Britain President Blair ?
Middle East Envoy and former Prime Minister of Britain Tony Blair Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Few doubt that Tony Blair has flair and international cachet. That might well work against the former British leader as EU leaders started mulling Thursday who should become the European Union's first president under a sweeping new reform treaty.

In a race where no one has formally declared candidacy and the job is still ill defined, there are as many nations that lean toward appointing a low-key technocrat as those that want a towering figure who can go head to head with other global powers.

"Yes, we have all heard names. But the work to achieve a larger consensus, that is going to take some time," said Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero. The Socialist leader stopped short of endorsing the Labour Party's Blair.

One leader suggested the EU needs to figure out what the president will do before it decides who it will be.

"We have to come to (an) agreement on what is the exact mandate of this president," said Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai. "Then we can find the right person."

Blair is seen as the "strong" presidential candidate while rumors abound about candidates in the other corner, with such names as Dutch premier Jan Peter Balkenende, Belgian leader Herman Van Rompuy, Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker and Finnish ex-premier Paavo Lipponen mentioned.

A high-profile EU president could easily clash with national priorities from employment to foreign affairs, with the risk of revealing a fractured continent. A low-key president might work behind the scenes to improve unity among the 27 nations, and let EU leaders take credit.

No official campaign
At the summit on Thursday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown lobbied openly for Blair, saying his predecessor would make an "excellent" first president of the European Union.

"We would like him to be a candidate but it's his decision to make," said Brown.

The two-day summit, however, will not be able to come up with a final decision since the refusal of Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus to sign the EU reform treaty in time makes all talk about presidents speculative.

Blair himself hasn't even begun a campaign for the job.

"As we have said time and again on this, there is nothing to be a candidate for since the job doesn't actually exist. There has been no change in the position. There is no campaign and Mr. Blair is fully focused on his existing projects," his spokesman Matthew Doyle said in a statement.

Opposition to Blair largely stems from Britain's historical resistance to all things European. Britain is not part of the EU single currency — Blair himself kept the pound out of the euro — nor a member of the Schengen zone of unfettered travel among most EU nations.

Many Europeans object to Blair in particular because of his outspoken support for the Iraq War — although Brown insisted Thursday that was "not an issue" in Europe today.

Gender issue
Further complicating the picture is the fight between Europe's leading conservative and center-left parties over who should get the job. Britain's own Conservative Party has come out strongly against a Blair candidacy.

Gender is also an argument.

EU Parliament President Jerzy Buzek came out strongly for breaking Europe's male-dominated political scene. "It should be considered that a woman could and should occupy this position. Appointing a woman would send a positive signal," Buzek said.

Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite and former Irish president Mary Robinson are among the women being mentioned.

On top of a president, the 27 nations would also have to pick a foreign policy chief at the same time, making the selection process even more complicated.