The Search for a President 'Dwarf' Attack Threatens Blair's EU Dreams
For weeks, many have speculated that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in line to become the European Union's first president. But now, Jean-Claude Juncker from tiny Luxembourg may have torpedoed the plan. EU logic indicates that a third candidate may emerge victorious.
"I am not a dwarf." With this combative statement, tinged with disgust, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker threw his hat into the ring on Tuesday for the soon-to-be-named position of European Union president.
Juncker's statement came in response to those -- mostly in Great Britain -- who have argued that the leader of tiny Luxembourg would not carry enough weight on the international stage to adequately represent the 27-member block with a population of 500 million. Were he asked to become the EU's first president, in accordance with the almost-ratified Lisbon Treaty, Juncker told the French daily Le Monde, "I wouldn't have any reason to refuse to listen."
But even as Juncker seemed to be kicking off his unofficial campaign on the Continent, many on the other side of the English Channel have begun urging former Prime Minister Tony Blair to be more vocal in his own pursuit of the office. Two high-ranking officials in Britain's Labour-led government voiced concern in the Guardian that Blair could be passed over for the post unless he becomes more proactive.
Nevertheless, the Blair campaign, such as it is, has gathered momentum in recent weeks as numerous allies and confidants have praised him in center-left British papers for being a credible candidate and the "frontrunner" in the race for the presidency.
The duel between Juncker and Blair comes as the 27 EU heads of state and government prepare to gather in Brussels at the end of this week for the bloc's fall summit. In addition to the post of president, the EU also must name 27 commissioners and choose a Foreign High Representative, often referred to as the EU foreign minister.
Still, discussions about the EU's two highest posts are not likely to be made public. The European Union will only get a president and a foreign minister once the Lisbon Treaty has been completely ratified -- and Czech President Vaclav Klaus continues to withhold his signature. He says he is waiting for the results of a case pending before the Czech constitutional court; the court said on Tuesday it would reconvene on Nov. 3, at which time it will likely hand down its verdict. In addition, the EU must consider Klaus' demand that the Czech Republic receive an exemption from the human rights charter which is part of the Lisbon Treaty. He is concerned that the charter could open a path for ethnic Germans, expelled from Czechoslovakia following World War II, to reclaim their property.
Still, Klaus has indicated that he will eventually sign the treaty, and it will likely come within the next few weeks -- meaning that the game of personnel poker is well underway in European capitals. "The telephone lines are smoking," said Werner Langen, a German member of the European Parliament. While climate change and the EU's plan for the Baltic Sea region are at the top of the summit agenda, the main topic in the hallways is likely to be Blair and the presidency.
Close to Zero
The fact that Juncker has now entered the fray does not come as a surprise. It is well known that Juncker -- the longest-serving head of government in the EU and a man who carries the nickname "Mr. Europe" with pride -- would love to be the first EU president in history. His chances, though, are seen as being close to zero. Both Great Britain and France, two of the EU's largest member states, are opposed to his candidacy.
Juncker is almost surely aware of that, which is why many speculate that his motive is a different one -- that of preventing Blair from getting the office. It is a classic move on the Brussels chessboard: one creates a dichotomy of extremes -- in this case a prominent politician from the country of euro-skeptics versus a European-by-conviction from a small member state -- and immediately, the EU culture of consensus almost demands a compromise candidate. In this scenario, neither Blair nor Juncker would be appointed president, but a third candidate. German government sources see this scenario as being the most likely.
Juncker's motivation is not hard to guess at. He is the prime minister of one of the EU's original members, he is one of the architects of the Maastricht Treaty and he chairs the Euro Group, made up of finance ministers from countries belonging to the single European currency zone. The idea of a Briton speaking for the European Union is difficult for him to accept. Furthermore, Blair's alliance with former US President George W. Bush during the invasion of Iraq has not been forgotten. Both points are often underestimated in London.
Still, the British government is not giving up and has cast aside all reserve. Foreign Secretary David Miliband threw his support behind Blair at a meeting of EU foreign ministers earlier this week. "I think it would be a very good for Britain as well as Europe if Tony Blair was chosen," he told the BBC. "We need someone who -- when he or she lands in Beijing or Washington or Moscow -- the traffic does need to stop and talks do need to begin at a very, very high level."
Such a scenario, however, is not to the liking of some European leaders wary of having to share the spotlight with a media darling like Blair. For realists, Blair's attraction lies primarily in the fact that he would offer a British counterbalance to conservative euroskeptic David Cameron were he to take over as prime minister following May elections.
At the moment, it looks as though Juncker's strategy will pay off. Few in Brussels are still betting on Blair, with most guessing that a third candidate will pop up. One anonymous diplomat quoted by the Financial Times earlier this month said "frontrunners in EU job hunts have a habit of fading before the finish line."
There are many in Great Britain who would likewise breathe a sigh of relief were Blair to fall short. Another scenario currently under discussion is that another country would provide the European Union president and that the foreign minister would be British. The current British Foreign Secretary Miliband is seen as a good candidate. He has, however, rejected such speculation, partly no doubt so as not to be seen as making an end run around Blair.
Should it become clear at this week's summit that backing is lacking for Blair, then the deck will be reshuffled -- and German Chancellor Angela Merkel could find herself in the role of kingmaker. So far she has been waiting to see which direction the wind is blowing, as the chancellor has a tendency to do. On Wednesday evening, she is expected in Paris for a working dinner with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the subject of EU top slots is almost sure to be a topic of discussion. But in contrast to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Merkel has made no indication as to who she might prefer. Once she does make up her mind, her word is likely to carry all the more weight.