Page last updated at 11:14 GMT, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Blair and the EU presidency

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

He may never have publicly expressed an interest in doing the job himself, but Tony Blair spent many years lobbying for the creation of a full-time European President.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair has not declared his candidacy for the new EU post

The proposal for a president chosen by the governments of member states was first put forward by French President Jacques Chirac.

Mr Blair backed the idea in a speech to the Warsaw stock exchange in 2000 - arguing it was a necessary bulwark against the creation of an EU "superstate".

At the time, the German government was pushing for a directly elected president of the European Commission, the unelected body responsible for generating European law and the the day-to-day running of the EU, as part of a move towards a fully federal Europe.

The Germans argued that this would bring much-needed democratic accountability to the EU and reconnect Europe's institutions with its citizens.

But Mr Blair was concerned that such a figure would have more power and a bigger mandate than any national leader.

He said he wanted to see a Europe where the nation state remained sovereign - a "superpower, not a superstate" as he described it in his speech.

Summit setback

A key part of this would be to beef up the role of the Council of Ministers, the other key decision making body of the EU, which is made up of ministers from the member states.

Mr Blair proposed a full time chairman of the council, to be chosen by the leaders of the member states rather than Europe's 300 million voters - ending the rotation of the presidency every six months.

I am not in favour of a directly elected President of the European Commission
Tony Blair, in 2001

Mr Blair's other big idea at the time was a second European chamber drawn from national parliaments - but this was rejected as too complicated by the European commissioner for reform.

And his plans received a further blow in December 2001, when the Laeken summit of EU leaders agreed to push ahead with plans for a directly elected EU president.

The then British prime minister claimed a victory of sorts as the Laeken declaration acknowledged public opposition to the creation of a "superstate".

But that did little to quell the anger of Eurosceptics at home, as Mr Blair had softened his opposition to a written EU constitution at the summit and - despite his official opposition to the idea - had failed to use Britain's veto to block the elected president plan.

'Enlarged European Union'

Some Eurosceptics began to allege an ulterior motive.

"Does the prime minister agree that an elected President of the EU would be incompatible with the sort of vision that he has set out of co-operating, independent democratic states in the EU, or has the chancellor (Gordon Brown) persuaded him that it could be an exciting vacancy for a man of his talents?", asked Conservative MP John Redwood in the House of Commons.

"I am not in favour of a directly elected President of the European Commission, but that is exactly the type of argument that will be fought over the next two to three years," replied Mr Blair.

He told Mr Redwood Britain would be arguing for a strengthened council of ministers - and pushing for a solution to "the issue of a rotating six-month presidency - a procedure that cannot be maintained in an enlarged European Union".

The man Mr Blair selected to help make this case - close ally and future foreign secretary David Miliband - was seen as a sign of how seriously he was taking the issue.

Mr Miliband, who has gone on to be the most enthusiastic cheerleader for the idea of Mr Blair as EU president, had only been an MP for a few months when he joined the 100 strong convention on the future of Europe, headed by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

'Musical chairs'

He was joined a few months later by Europe Minister Peter Hain, who continued to sit on the convention after being promoted to the cabinet as Welsh Secretary.

Mr Blair had firmly aligned himself with Jacques Chirac and Spanish premier Jose Maria Aznar in pushing for a full-time president of the council of ministers. Italy and Sweden were also on board.

There isn't a job yet - we are trying to create one and the prime minister is very busy sorting out the problems of Britain and the world
Peter Hain, in 2002

Opposition to the plan was led by Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker - who is now putting himself forward as a rival candidate to Mr Blair for the job.

German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was slowly coming round to the idea, as long as it did not challenge the authority of the president of the European Commission, filled at the time by Romano Prodi.

In October 2002, the then foreign secretary Jack Straw wrote an influential article in the Economist calling for an end to the the "musical chairs" of the six month rotating presidency, which was received warmly in Europe.

But the Conservatives stepped up their accusations that Mr Blair was trying to line up a job for himself. Peter Hain was given the job of pouring cold water on their claims.

"Tony Blair is very busy running the country and will, with the permission of the electorate, do so for the foreseeable future," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme seven years ago.

"There isn't a job yet. We are trying to create one and the prime minister is very busy sorting out the problems of Britain and the world. Other names have been put forward."

'Putting out the chairs'

Germany finally threw its weight behind the idea of an EU president elected every two-and-a-half years by EU government heads in the summer of 2003.

The plan was included in the ill-fated European Constitution but was revived in the Lisbon Treaty that replaced it.

The idea of a president of the council was opposed by smaller EU countries, who saw it as a typical power grab by Europe's "big three" and attacked by both Eurosceptics, who saw it as paving the way for an EU superstate, and federalists, who saw it as ending their dream of an EU superstate.

But how much power Mr Blair or whoever else gets the job will actually have is not clear - with disagreement still rife about the relative status of the new role compared with that of European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.

They could have a relatively low key role - "putting out the chairs" at summits as some have described, or they could, as Eurosceptics fear, be a major player on the international stage, complete with motorcade and entourage.

A lot will depend on the actions - and international clout - of the first incumbent. And there are few who believe that President Blair would be much of a one for stacking chairs.

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