Here's a riddle: What unites French Socialists and British Conservatives and brings feminists together with the editors of prurient tabloid newspapers? Answer: Tony Blair. Across Europe, natural adversaries are finding common purpose in their efforts to stop Britain's former Prime Minister from assuming the role popularly known as President of Europe.
The grudging admission by the Euroskeptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus in a newspaper interview published on Oct. 18 that he will ratify the Lisbon Treaty, a document designed to re-engineer the European Union's institutions to better match the realities of its expanded membership, has set off a race for the E.U.'s top job. The treaty creates two powerful new positions: President of the European Council and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, effectively the E.U.'s Foreign Minister. Blair is seen as front runner for the presidency.
You might think Blair's international cachet would be cause for British hearts to swell with pride. But some of his most bitter opponents are homegrown. Opinion polls point to a Conservative Party victory in British parliamentary elections to be held before June 2010. The Tories will campaign on a Euroskeptic platform. A high-profile, high-powered E.U. President such as Blair would surely increase the influence of Brussels; many Conservatives also feel personal animus toward the politician whose success consigned them to the wilderness for so long. "Having President Blair would put us in a state of permanent warfare if we won the election. I cannot stress how serious this is," a Tory source told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
In power, Prime Minister Blair was accused by critics of appearing too "presidential." He and his wife Cherie also gained a reputation for enjoying the trappings of power. As soon as Blair's name was linked with the European presidency, tabloids rechristened the pair "Boney Blair" and "Cherie Antoinette" after those high-handed continentals Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette.
More damaging to Blair's prospects is the enduring anger over Iraq. Sometime in the coming months, a new British inquiry into the war will summon Blair to give evidence. Families of dead troops have called for him to be indicted as a war criminal. Blair's support for the U.S. on Iraq curdled public opinion outside his homeland too. François Hollande, the former first secretary of the French Socialist Party, has dismissed the idea of a Blair candidacy. The first President of Europe, he said, should be "politically autonomous from the U.S."
Then there's the fact that Britain has always stood apart from central E.U. policies such as the common currency. "The very candidacy of Mr. Blair is a slap in the face for Europe," says Philippe Moreau Defarges, European-affairs specialist for the French Institute of International Relations. "The U.K.'s habit of participating only in those E.U. projects it wants to be involved with" is a strike against a Blair presidency, he says. The Benelux countries the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg feel the same way.
Alternative candidates include a collection of current leaders: Jan Peter Balkenende from the Netherlands, François Fillon from France and Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg. With the presidencies of the European Commission and European Parliament already held by men, equality campaigners have suggested female candidates including the former Irish President Mary Robinson.
All is not lost for Blair. Here's one fulsome tribute: "Tony Blair has all the right credentials." Unfortunately, that endorsement comes from Italy's embattled leader Silvio Berlusconi. Another supporter is Ireland's former Premier, Bertie Ahern. "Tony's a good friend of mine, and I'd like to see him get [the job] if he really wants it. I'm positive that he does," says Ahern, adding, "Tony is not going to walk into this without a lot of stuff going on in the background. There will be games going on."
Indeed there will. France and Spain back Blair, at least for now. Angela Merkel, the leader of Europe's largest economy, remains enigmatic. Westminster insiders say Merkel will come through for Blair. A German government source is more nuanced. "The Chancellor worked well with [Blair] during the 2007 German E.U. presidency when the Lisbon Treaty was sealed. But of course, she worked well with others too." The presidential race isn't over until the E.U.'s undisputed heavyweight sings.
With reporting by Bruce Crumley / Paris