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Blair and the non-presidential campaign

Gavin Hewitt | 11:50 UK time, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

There can't be many campaigns like this. There is a job out there with a great title, but no-one has yet decided what it means, and there is a fierce argument being fought over a man who is not yet a candidate. So where do we stand on this non-presidential campaign?

Way back, Europe decided it would be more effective if it had a full-time president rather than a rotating presidency every six months. Not everyone was sure about this. The idea was pushed most strongly by Britain and France. They wanted a big name who would be the face of Europe.

Even back then smaller countries were uneasy.They feared this new "big beast" could eclipse them. He might just call Sarkozy or Merkel direct, and cut them out. Still, the job was written into the Lisbon Treaty with the title "President of the European Council". The president will have very little actual power, but could have high visibility.

Those arguments over the job description have not been resolved and, until they are, Tony Blair will not be a candidate. If the job turns out to be chairing summits - or, as someone put, it an "arranger of furniture" then it's not for Tony Blair. He'll be a no-show.

If, on the other hand, European leaders want someone who will get a meeting at the White House rather than a handshake with Joe Biden, then Blair is the only name out there. So we don't have a candidate, but I am certain that Blair wants the job if he can play the world stage. If he didn't he could easily have ruled himself out.

So ,Tony Blair won't declare until he sees the job spec, but that hasn't stopped a campaign being run on his behalf. His campaign team turns out to be the British government. There will be the curious sight of Gordon Brown barnstorming for the man who kept him out of No 10 for so long.

At this week's European summit Gordon Brown will push Tony Blair. The issue of the president is not formally on the agenda at the summit but it will be discussed at dinner on Thursday night. The role of campaign manager looks as if it is being played by an old ally of Tony Blair, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband. He has used every opportunity to "sell" Blair. He wants a president who will stop traffic in Beijing. This is "no time for shy and retiring violets", he told me. Miliband's point is that the world is in danger of becoming a G2 - America and China. Europe needs a spokesman.

The "return of Blair", however, has sent a shock-wave through the British political system. The Tories are furious.

One said: "Imagine the headline next year: 'Prime Minister David Cameron welcomes President Blair to Downing Street'." So the shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, is also on the campaign trail, telling the French and Germans that promoting Blair would be a "hostile act". David Cameron is siding with the small countries in wanting a low-key president, a chair of summits and no more. He certainly doesn't want an "all singing, all-dancing, all acting" President Blair. The Liberal Democrats are set to oppose a President Blair.

The "Blair presidency" has become a surrogate for all the old arguments over the war in Iraq. Some Labour MPs, who bitterly opposed the invasion, say Blair "would be wholly unsuitable for the job". Others, like Roger Liddle, who was an adviser to both Tony Blair and the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said the war shouldn't be an issue.

However, Tony Blair is attracting so much heat that some say it is damaging his chances. So one candidate has appeared for the job that is yet to be defined. Step forward Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, a champion of the voice of small countries. "If I were called on," he said modestly, "I would have no reason to refuse". Then he appeared to take a swipe at his non-declared rival. "Europe should be represented by someone whose main concern would be to serve it."

The race will probably only be settled at a special summit held after the Czech president signs the Lisbon Treaty. That will probably be in November.
The electorate is small: the 27 heads of government. It will be decided on qualified majority voting, so expect deals and horse-trading.
Much will turn on the views of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who just happen to be meeting later. It may revolve on how they see the future of Europe - but it may hinge, too, on power. Would a leader with a world-wide reputation detract from their own standing on the international stage?


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