EUROPE

Spain does not support former UK PM Blair’s bid to be EU president

Spain opposes the possibility of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair becoming the first President of the European Union. A senior insider spoke of opinion leaning toward a representative who is not from one of Europe's powerhouses.

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AFP - Former British premier Tony Blair's chances of becoming the first-ever EU president wilted Friday, as Europe's leaders sought a lesser light to lead a new-look European Union, officials said.

At an EU summit, Spain added its no vote to those of the Benelux countries and Hungary, and a senior insider spoke of a shifting tide of leaders leaning toward a representative who is not among Europe's powerhouses.

The job, Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said, should go to "a convinced European, with a European vocation to strengthen the Union and all that is common about it".

Among the other possibles are Luxembourg's premier Jean-Claude Juncker, Latvian's woman former head of state Vaira Vike-Freiberga, or ex-Irish leader John Bruton.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has ruled himself out, although this usually means little in Brussels.

It has not helped that Britain, whose people and leaders are perceived in continental Europe as notoriously eurosceptic, is neither in the euro currency group nor the Schengen passport-free zone.

"The president (Nicolas Sarkozy) has great admiration for Tony Blair but the fact that Britain is not in the eurozone, or in the Schengen zone, is hardly an asset," said an official close to the French presidency.

Blair's candidacy did see a ringing, but slightly surreal, endorsement from his old nemesis British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as London appealed for a strong nominee to give Europe a stronger voice in the world.

But, as if scenting a shifting wind, even Europe's centre-left parties -- the second biggest formation in the European parliament and keen to have one of their own in a key new post -- backed away from the 56-year-old former Labour leader.

They seemed to sense that more power might lie in the beefed-up foreign policy supremo's job, which along with that of president is created by the new Lisbon Treaty due to enter into force next year.

By distancing themselves from Blair, the leaders have begun to stake out their vision of what Europe's "George Washington", the United States founding father, should do.

"Europe's decision about what role it wants to play in the world is going to be critical, for whether or not people come forward as candidates, and then who gets the job," noted British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

While Miliband has ruled himself out running for foreign policy chief, insiders say the door is wide open for him now that his former premier is out of the way.

Blair angered many in the EU by backing former US president George W. Bush's war on Iraq, but he was a charismatic orator, who would have brought gloss to the often staid European Union on the international stage.

"There is and there will remain a link for the coming generation between George W. Bush and Tony Blair, so it's not easy," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

"We have to try to find a personality who represents... something new for the future," he added.

Even experts are calling for a lower-profile figure to work selflessly to unite the EU's three institutions -- the council representing the 27-member nations, the executive European Commission and the European parliament.

"Yes, there will be some glitz, glamour and globe-trotting," Andrew Duff, a constitutional expert and Liberal Democrat member of the EU parliament, wrote in a letter to the Financial Times.

"But the council presidency will first and foremost require a behind-the-scenes consensus-builder."

By shifting away from Blair, the leaders appear to endorse that view, keeping -- as indeed they always have -- control over EU affairs firmly in the hands of the nations that make up the European enterprise.

The approach also confirms a tradition in Brussels, similar even at the NATO military alliance, of choosing consensus candidates from nations like Italy, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, Portugal and Spain.

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