Decision time for EU leaders


European leaders, led by Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, will act swiftly to make the EU’s reform charter a reality after Ireland’s Yes vote, despite the lone resistance of Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic.

The strong endorsement of the Lisbon treaty by the Irish after eight years of divisive attempts to rewrite the EU’s rule book, has sparked the jockeying for position over the plum jobs that it creates, with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair now a clear favourite to become the first permanent EU president.

The posts of president and that of a new foreign policy chief with enhanced powers are among the biggest changes under the treaty. Who gets what will be intricately linked to the share-out of portfolios in the new European Commission, which will be strongly debated in the coming weeks.

“In the end, it will be one large package which attempts to give every member state something to boast about,” said an EU official.

Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish Prime Minister and current EU President, is already canvassing names behind the scenes, trying to engineer a consensus on who should fill the two top posts.

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Blair’s interest in becoming president has been Europe’s worst-kept secret for more than a year. One of the great ironies of Lisbon is that it was born at a time when European leaders were vowing – following the collapse of its predecessor, the Constitutional Treaty – to create a Europe “closer to the people”. Yet its first official, permanent president of the council will be chosen in the least democratic of ways – behind closed doors by the 27 EU heads of state and government and without any of the candidates having campaigned before the court of public opinion.

“If you come out campaigning and saying you want it, that could be seen by heads of government as stepping out of line,” said a UK insider. “They see it as their call. A campaign would give your opponents an opportunity to mount their own campaign against you.”

So Blair has been running a non-campaign campaign for months. He has not said he wants the job, but neither has he said he does not. Friends have discreetly sounded out opinion on the diplomatic circuit on his behalf. Having reported back their qualified enthusiasm, he has allowed his hat to enter the ring without actively lobbing it in.

Headlines last week saying that Blair was in pole position to become president have been treated with suspicion by some British Labour MPs who want him to get the job, as well as by some commentators. They believe they are part of a spoiling operation by a Murdoch press which is moving ever closer to David Cameron, leader of the British Opposition Conservative Party, and that sees such stories as a way to stir up opposition to the Blair candidacy.

However, the reality is that close supporters of Blair genuinely believe that he is, as one very senior figure put it, “pretty well-placed” and are now prepared to advance his case more actively. They know that few important decisions are reached in the EU, even in an expanded community of 27 member states, without a French-German seal of approval.

And British officials now feel that, following her re-election as German Chancellor, Merkel can afford to enthuse about a president Blair. There is still deep resentment among Germany’s political classes and its public at Blair’s support for the Iraq war, and he is seen as having failed to stamp his pro-European mark on UK policy when Prime Minister. The UK’s position outside the eurozone does him no favours either in a country in which the onward march of integration is seen as a moral, as well as a political, imperative.

But with Merkel’s position reinforced, Blair’s supporters are confident, having taken soundings, that she will now team up with Sarkozy, the first European leader to suggest Blair would be good for the job. One British Government source said that France and Germany probably would unite behind Blair for the simple reason that he is such a “big name” and “would make Europe matter”.

With German-American relations on the mend since the election of President Barack Obama, Blair’s transatlantic enthusiasms, his environmental interests and Middle Eastern contacts would all be key assets in the task of punching Europe’s weight across the globe.

Reinfeldt wants nominations for the two jobs by the end of the month when an EU summit in Brussels should decide on a consensus.

The job description is a blank page. It must go to a former or serving head of government or state in Europe and he or she will chair summits of European leaders. Strangely, what else he or she does is unclear.

Senior diplomats say it will be up to whoever gets the job to shape it.

Whoever is installed, there will be frictions with Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, who has just obtained a second five-year term, and with the leaders of the various countries at the helm of the six-monthly rotating EU presidency. Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain is next in line for the Buggins-turn commission presidency in January and is not keen on being overshadowed by a president Blair.

Reinfeldt is also known to have his reservations about Blair, worried that the interests of the EU’s smaller countries will receive short shrift if the new president comes from one of the EU’s big four – Germany, France, Britain and Italy.

More immediately, all eyes shifted to Prague where Klaus now stands alone between the Irish referendum and getting the treaty up and running. Klaus is the most Eurosceptic leader in office in the EU. He insists he will not sign off on a Lisbon treaty, which has already been ratified by the Czech Parliament.

Sarkozy is fuming; Merkel is trying not to show her impatience. The only leader in Europe supporting Klaus is Cameron, who would have to stage a British referendum and kill the treaty if he entered government next year with the Czech President still blocking.

It is unlikely to come to that. Klaus’ allies in the Czech Upper House have just deposited a complaint about the treaty in the constitutional court. The Czech Government assured EU officials on Saturday that it was aiming to get the court to rule quickly, within a matter of weeks, and pleaded with the big pro-Lisbon camp not to put pressure on the Czechs. Was Sarkozy listening?

But Klaus is highly unpredictable, a loner, and nearing the end of his career with little to lose. He thinks he is on a mission to save European democracy and the nation state.

NZHerald.co.nz

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