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Resistance grows to ex-British PM becoming EU president

Brussels — Resistance is growing to the idea of Tony Blair securing the future EU president’s post, with federalist Benelux countries loath to hand the job to the former prime minister of eurosceptic Britain.

Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands this week presented a joint letter sketching out their ideal future president of the European Council, a post foreseen under the Lisbon Treaty which Irish voters endorsed last week.

The successful candidate must "demonstrate his European engagement and a developed vision on all the Union’s policies," the three Benelux countries stated.

"This is not a categorical veto on Blair, but a polite way of saying that he is not the best placed" candidate, said a European diplomat, decrypting the letter.

The EU president job will not even come into force before the Lisbon Treaty is ratified in all 27 member states and, after last week’s Irish vote, the Czech Republic and Poland are still to complete the process.

Nevertheless Blair has emerged as the early favourite for the key post, with support not only from the British government but also from France.

But his path is hampered by his own country’s ambivalence to European construction. Seen as having one foot in Europe and the other out, Britain is neither a member of the single currency eurozone nor the passport-free Schengen area.

The opposition is heightened by the varying fortunes and hopes of some prominent Benelux politicians.

Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt failed to win the post of EU commission president in 2004, when London deemed him too federalist and backed instead the current incumbent, Jose Manuel Barroso, a former Portuguese prime minister.

Meanwhile Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker has not given up hope of becoming the first EU president, even if his chances seem to have diminished.

Juncker on Monday appeared to oppose Blair, telling the German version of the Financial Times that the position should go to someone with a proven European track record "so that it would come as no surprise that he should become Europe’s premier voice."

Such sentiments could bolster the chances of Blair’s main rival, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende who, according to some diplomats, is a popular choice for Germany, the biggest EU economy.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini also said Tuesday that Blair’s chances suffer from Britain’s euroscepticism.

"We appreciate the man, but we are nevertheless aware of these limits, we do not deny them," he told the daily Corriere della Sera.

Another problem for former Labour party leader Blair is that the British opposition Conservatives do not support him and they are widely expected to come to power early next year.

"Most people would be extremely annoyed if Tony Blair is appointed president of the EU," said William Hague, the Conservatives’ foreign affairs spokesman.

"That would just underline the lack of accountability and democracy that is our objection to the Lisbon Treaty," he added.

The Conservatives have called for the treaty to be put to a public referendum, something Blair’s Labour party have refused to do.

On the other side of the political fence Blair, founder of the ‘New Labour’ project, is viewed as too liberal by European socialists, his natural constituency, who also reproach him for his support of the US-led war in Iraq.

"Our goal is to obtain the post of EU high representative for foreign policy," said German member of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, head of the Socialist grouping.

He was referring to the EU foreign policy supremo job which the treaty would also introduce, a post which would also be EU vice president.

Brussels wants the choices for the two new jobs named by the end of the year.

In principle this can be done via a qualified majority of EU nations, but the tradition is for such high profile decisions to be made through consensus, leaving the likelihood of much political horse-trading ahead.