John Rentoul: We'll let you know, Mr Blair

The Independent (Link) (July 19, 2009)

How Journalism Works, lesson 94: Timing is All. Eighteen months ago, Gordon Brown was forced through gritted teeth to say: "Tony Blair would be an excellent president."

Then, as now, the Lisbon Treaty seemed likely to create the post of President of the European Council. Since then, the Irish electorate rejected the treaty, but now opinion polls suggest that they are likely to vote the other way in a new referendum on 2 October.

So when Glenys Kinnock, the Europe Minister, said last week, "The UK Government is supporting Tony Blair's candidature for president of the Council", it set off a riot of speculation about who would get the job. In one sense, she wasn't saying anything new. In another, not only was she pre-empting the democratic decision of the Irish people, but she was formally committing the British Government in a way that the Prime Minister had not, quite.

The timing, though, is most important. For a while, the Lisbon Treaty went away. The Irish were not the only road block to its ratification. There were the Czechs, the Poles and the German constitutional court.

Suddenly, all the barriers are lifting, and it looks as if it really will happen. The German Bundestag will pass the laws required by the constitutional court before the general election in September. The Polish and Czech presidents have to do something involving sealing wax or similar, but they are hardly likely to scupper the whole deal now that their parliaments have approved it.

The horse-trading could start as soon as the result of the Irish referendum is known, and it could all be decided by Christmas. So it is no wonder that Lady Kinnock's unguarded comments provide the occasion to ask, once again, will Blair get it?

For much of the British media, this is merely an excuse in turn, to ask, should Blair get it? And to answer it in the negative. I am still surprised by the extent to which so many of my fellow journalists have been infected with the cult-like B-liar belief set (war criminal, million dead, David Kelly murdered), which is a fascinating psycho-social phenomenon but not one that I am well qualified to analyse.

Wider public opinion is much less hostile. Many people would be proud to see a Briton in such a high-profile European post, and have a reasonably positive view of the prime minister whom, after all, they re-elected four years ago.

The question ought to be, of course, would Blair be any good at it? That depends on what the job is for, or what purpose its holder could fashion for it. In one sense, it is a ridiculous post. "Just a chairman," says Jean-Luc Dehaene, the former Belgian prime minister. It creates a new position that clashes with two existing posts � those of Jos� Manuel Barroso, about to be confirmed in a second term as head of the Commission, who is also called "President", and of Javier Solana, whose foreign affairs role will be enhanced by the Lisbon Treaty. Barroso already represents the EU at global junkets.

It is an unappealing muddle, a miserable and contradictory end for the foolish ambition of drafting a constitution for Europe � without reference to its peoples (except, too late, to some of them) � and it is fitting that its final act should be the affront to democracy of re-running a referendum that gave the wrong answer.

But if the new post is created, the question is whether it would be better for it to be filled by a nobody, or by an energetic, bilingual global statesman? For me, that's a no-brainer. Blair could use it not only to represent the EU more effectively to the world, but to its own citizens, and to mobilise European opinion on climate change and single market reform. Tactically it would also make sense for the core European countries to bind in the semi-detached Brits by giving them such an identifiable stake in the project.

But you can see why others might not be so keen.

Public opinion in other European countries is likely to be mixed, at best. The only poll that has been carried out, by Harris Interactive in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Spain in April last year, had Blair running second to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She was on 11 per cent, he on 9 per cent (averaging the five countries). Both of them, however, were soundly beaten by "There should not be a President of Europe", on 26 per cent, which even came out ahead of the don't knows on 25 per cent.

In any case, the decision is not going to be made by the peoples of Europe. It will be made � if necessary by "qualified majority vote" in which each country has a voting weight related to population � by the 27 leaders of EU member states.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is said to have gone off the idea of Blair, and Merkel was never keen. She was thought to want the job herself, but now it looks as though she will win her impending election, her own ambition is no longer a factor.

Her ego, however, and that of the other 26 national leaders, is very much still in play. These are self-important people, intensely jealous of the national power that they hold. One of Blair's most remarkable skills in the past was that of managing such jostling of egos, as when he held together the 19-member Nato coalition over Kosovo. But he couldn't manage it on Iraq, and this time they can see him coming.

I suspect that the leaders of the European Union's governments would rather have someone who is no threat to their power, pomp or prestige. Blair has been campaigning for the job, all right. In January last year he gave a speech � in French � to the conference of UMP, Sarkozy's centre-right party, in Paris. But, since he missed election to the shadow cabinet in 1987, this could be the first job that he has gone for and failed to get.