Tony Blair is after one of the top European Union jobs, according to the Brussels rumour mill - PublicServiceEurope.com asks if the former British prime minister has what it takes to see off a field of hungry contenders
Brussels diplomats almost choked on their morning croissant when Tony Blair
reappeared on the radar. After years of keeping his head down, the former British prime minster was suddenly spouting off about Europe's coming "political crisis" and his fears that the United Kingdom might want to pull out of the 27-member bloc. Not only had he resurfaced, he had chosen to do so in suspicious fashion: an interview in Germany's Die Zeit
newspaper. What is he up to, they wondered? Could it really be that Blair is after one of the big European Union jobs?
"If I was Blair and I wanted to get back into the game, that is the way I would do it," one EU diplomat tells PublicServiceEurope.com
. "Remember that it was German chancellor Angela Merkel who stood in the way of him getting the top job last time," says the diplomat. "It is no surprise that he is trying to soften the Germans up first."
Is Blair in with a shout? He undoubtedly has the ambition. He also speaks French, a fact that is perhaps enough on its own to secure the support of Paris.
"He could conceivably present himself as the saviour of Europe, the man required to bang heads together," the diplomat continues. Action man Blair would be the antidote to sleepy Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, the current president of the European Council. "Van Rompuy is seen as only speaking to the big three member states, but Blair on the other hand could give the impression that he talks to everyone," adds the diplomat. "Perhaps, Blair is already cultivating the Poles. He could also be seen as more Atlanticist than Van Rompuy."
The odds are, however, stacked against him. Not only does Blair still carry around the baggage of "morally justified intervention" in Iraq, the EU might not yet be ready for a larger-than-life leader. "You still come up against the old problems: his history and the fact he is too big," says a British Brussels insider. "Are we really entering a new era in the EU, institutionally speaking? Unless there is consensus that we are, the likelihood is that we are going to get another weak EU president like Van Rompuy." The Belgian politician is serving his second, and in theory his final, two-and-a-half-year term. He is due to be replaced in November 2014.
Other questions hover over a possible Blair candidacy. Could he secure the support his own UK Labour party? Is he not too divisive? "If Blair is really angling after the top job, he is rolling a pretty big ball up the hill," an EU source, who wishes to remain anonymous, says. Would he receive the essential backing of the British government? Rather than a high profile job such as European Council president, Britain might feel more comfortable lobbying for a "utilitarian" Brussels position the next time the spoils are divvied up - such as commissioner for trade, or commissioner for competition. That way, Britain's man in Brussels could be portrayed as doing his bit for UK Plc.
The top jobs come with a potentially powerful soapbox, though only if the post holder is willing to exploit the opportunities. For this reason, some member states would rather they remained in the hands of political novices and nobodies. The same principle applies, arguably, to the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy - the job currently held by Britain's Catherine Ashton. Would smaller member states be prepared to stand by while an imposing character such as the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy railroaded them into his vision of European foreign policy?
Sarkozy might get carried away with his own enthusiasm. "What do you want this person to do?" says a diplomat, on the High Representative's role. "Do you want him or her to be a monster coordinator or are you looking for someone who will go off and engage in substantive foreign policy on his or her own initiative? The institutional dialogue has not taken place yet." Sarkozy, like Blair, is known to hanker after a return to the inner sanctum of European power. Many officials in the European Commission believe Sarkozy is destined for Brussels and could even become their leader when current commission president Jose Manuel Barroso is finally put out to grass. The EU capital is, after all, a handy way of getting rid of the potentially troublesome.
Other names now in the frame for senior jobs include Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk – said to have the blessing of Germany - and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Given that Brussels is particularly obsessed with gender balance, at least one woman will have to figure on the shortlist. Luxembourg's serving Brussels commissioner Viviane Reding is rumoured to be willing to throw her hat into the ring.
Could Ashton land a second mandate as head of the EU's diplomatic arm? The criticism that accompanied the early part of her tenure has died down somewhat of late. "She is generally seen as doing a good job under difficult circumstances," says one Brussels source. "But those who support her and want her to carry on have not come out and said so in public. Neither have her opponents made their voices heard."
Landing a top EU job is a bit like playing musical chairs to an Austrian waltz. While the band plays, those in contention have to glide elegantly around a ballroom filled with their peers. But over the shoulder of their dancing partner, you can spot them keeping a close eye on the empty chairs. When the music stops, they know there will only be three at the top table. Blair, with his German newspaper interview, has opened the ball.