BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chances of becoming president of the European Union receded on Thursday when he failed to win the blessing of European socialists, the allies of his governing Labour Party.
Although British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the socialists to back Blair at a meeting before an EU summit, some leaders distanced themselves from his candidacy and the party set up a three-man team to decide its position.
Blair faces opposition because of his backing for U.S. President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, but also because Britain is not among the 16 countries that use the euro currency and is seen as eurosceptic.
“My personal opinion is that the candidate ... should have an especially good relationship with (President Barack) Obama and not stand for a good working relationship with Bush,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Fayman said.
Fayman is one of the three leaders who will decide the socialists’ position, and his views were echoed by Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister.
“I do not find that the candidacy of Tony Blair is good because of what he characterizes. He is connected with Bush and the war in Iraq,” he said. “The best candidates are the ones who have not been named as candidates.”
Such remarks do not augur well for Blair’s chances of becoming the 27-country bloc’s first long-term president.
The job is being created under a treaty that has yet to come into force and says little about what it entails and what powers should be attached to it.
Some EU member states oppose having a political heavyweight in the job, fearful they could be sidelined. Others want a high-profile appointment who would have more credibility in meetings with the United States or China.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker has challenged Blair and other candidates could include former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.
Brown said Blair would be an excellent candidate, dismissing objections to his candidacy by Britain’s opposition Conservative party. He said Blair becoming president would be in Britain’s interests.
A source close to Brown said he had delivered the socialists a “tough message,” telling them Blair was “a unique opportunity to get a strong progressive politician to be the President.”
But Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero suggested the socialists might instead seek the post of high representative for foreign affairs.
Such a decision would leave the presidency open to a center-right candidate and leave little chance for Blair, whose left-leaning Labour Party has been in power for more than a decade.
“The criteria put forward by the European socialist party to express a preference for the high representative job sounds very reasonable to me,” Zapatero said.