Tony Blair is a leading contender to become the first president of the EU and has the full backing of the British government for the job, the new Europe minister, Lady Kinnock, announced today.
In 10 years as prime minister, Blair shunned the single currency, backed Bush over Brussels and went to war in Iraq. Many in Europe have never forgiven him.
But the long-held suspicion in European politics was confirmed when Lady Kinnock, the Europe minister in Strasbourg for the parliament's opening session, said that although Blair had not formally declared his candidacy, it was "certainly" the government position to support him.
"I am sure they would not do it without asking him," she said. "The UK government is supporting Tony Blair's candidature for president of the council."
It was the first definite statement on the matter. The Blair camp, in Jerusalem as he continues his current job as a Middle East envoy, was caught off guard. "Nothing has changed. The job doesn't exist, so there is nothing to be a candidate for," said a Blair spokesman.
The post will be created under the Lisbon treaty, streamlining the way the EU is run, if the Irish endorse it in a referendum in early October. Blair would be the first sitting president of the EU, appointed by European government chiefs for a minimum of 30 months and a maximum of five years.
If the Irish vote yes on 2 October, EU leaders are expected to decide who will get the top job at a summit at the end of October.
"Blair is seen by many as someone who has the strength of character, the stature," said Kinnock.
"People know who he is and he would be someone who would have this role and step into it with a lot of respect and I think would be generally welcomed."
British diplomats were also caught off-guard and cautioned that Kinnock's remarks remained speculation.
"The reality is Lisbon has not entered into force," said a diplomat. "Blair has yet to say whether he will stand."
Downing Street went further than it had in confirming that Blair was the government's candidate, if he wanted it, but indicated Kinnock had gone further than No 10 had wanted.
"What the prime minister supports is Tony Blair's candidature for the president of the European council if Tony Blair decides that that is what he would like to do and as and when such a position exists.
"I'm not sure I would characterise it [Kinnock's remarks] as an announcement. I don't think it is any surprise that the Europe minister in this government has said that we would support Tony Blair as a candidate."
William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, said the post would be "enormously damaging" for Europe. "Any holder is likely to try to centralise power for themselves in Brussels and dominate national foreign policies. In the hands of an operator as ambitious as Tony Blair, that is a near certainty. He should be let nowhere near the job."
The founder of New Labour will almost certainly encounter stiff opposition, although he has few peers in Europe who could match him for international name recognition or contacts.
Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister who took over the rotating presidency of the EU this month and who will chair the October summit, is known to be strongly opposed to a "President Blair".
He told the Guardian todaythat he would not get into any discussion of names for the post, while a senior European diplomat said that the Europe president post would be "the absolute top subject" at the October summit.
José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish PM who takes over the EU presidency after Reinfeldt in January, is also an opponent. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is not believed to be keen. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, an early fan of Blair for the role, might calculate that it would be better to side with German and Spanish leaders than support the British.
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