Blair for EU president? UK divided

LONDON: A fierce debate is underway in Britain about whether Tony Blair is the right man to be the European Union's first full-time president, as well as what the job should entail.

Blair, who led Britain into the Iraq war, is still a controversial figure for some but his supporters argue that he is one of the few people with the stature necessary for the job.

"Opinions are divided (over) whether it should be a little man or a grand man," said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.

"Europe has to decide to think big or act small," said Britain's former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, while the Economist summed it up: "The choice is, (between) the usual Europygmies, or Tony Blair."

The debate hotted up this week after Ireland voted Yes at the second time of asking to the EU's Lisbon Treaty reforms.

The treaty includes the creation of a long-term president of the European Council, replacing the current six-month rotation system. The Czech Republic is the only EU country yet to ratify it, after Poland did so on Saturday.

Maurice Fraser, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank, said Sweden, the present holder of the rotating presidency, wants to announce the name of the new president before the end of its term in December.

He predicted "harsh" wrangling "about the right person for the job, the respective role of the new president vis a vis Barroso (Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission) and vis a vis the future".

There are also questions about what the job will actually entail.

"There is nothing (in the treaty) that clearly tells which of these two roles this person will occupy -- a facilitator of consensus, or a high-profile global role on the world stage," Fraser said.

In other words, the question famously posed by US former secretary of state Henry Kissinger 30 years ago still hangs in the air: "Who do I call if I want to talk to Europe?"

"I don't think they know," Grant said, adding that some of the 27-member bloc "saw the damage done to the EU when the Czechs held the presidency during the Gaza conflict" in 2008.

"Same for Belgium at the time of 9/11," he said. "The Americans would not find time to meet them."

The Conservatives, who polls suggest will win the next general election which must be held by June, pour scorn on the idea of Blair as EU president.

During 10 years in Downing Street, Blair's Labour beat the Tories in three general elections.

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

"There could be no worse way to sell the EU to the people of Britain."

The colourful Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, added that Blair would be "a Euro-Emperor... like some wizard in the Lord of the Rings in a guise more powerful than we can possibly imagine."

Blair's CV features both pluses and minuses for the job.

Although a Europhile, he did not lead Britain into the euro or the passport-free Schengen area.

And while he is acceptable to some on the centre-right, others on the left -- nominally his own side -- call him "Tory Blair" and condemn his record of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with then US president George W. Bush on Iraq.

Even one of his own former diplomats, Carne Ross, has spoken out against a possible Blair EU presidency. Ross claims Blair's government "exaggerated" evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"If the new, improved, post-Lisbon EU is to have any credibility or integrity, it needs a different leader," Ross said in a letter to the Financial Times Thursday.

Despite all the debate, there has been silence on the issue from "the great communicator" himself, who is working on promoting peace in the Middle East and inter-faith dialogue, between lucrative speaking engagements.

His spokesman said: "As we have said time and again on this, there is nothing to be a candidate for since the job doesn't actually exist...

"There is no campaign and no campaign team. Mr. Blair is fully focused on his existing projects."