Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Gordon Brown of Britain on Friday in Lisbon. (AP Photo)
LISBON: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain endorsed Tony Blair on Friday to be the first to fill a re-created European Union presidency, even as critics questioned how a leader from a nation deeply skeptical of the European Union could serve in the role.
European leaders agreed early on Friday to a new treaty for the 27-member bloc that creates the post of European Union president to represent Europe internationally on issues like climate change, bilateral relations and development. The post, with a 30-month term that can be extended to five years, is to replace a cumbersome system by which European Union leaders and nations rotate holding the presidency every six months.
The new office would come into effect in January 2009 and could finally make it clear whom Washington should call when it "wants to speak to Europe," as Henry Kissinger once put it.
As rumors swirled at the summit meeting over which candidate could win the necessary backing of all 27 member states — with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark; Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg; and a former Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, also cited — Brown insisted that his charismatic predecessor as Britain's prime minister was singularly qualified.
"Tony Blair would be a great candidate for any significant international job," Brown said. Referring to Blair's current job as the European Union's Middle East envoy, he added, "As you know, the work that he is doing in the Middle East is something that is of huge international importance."
Blair's candidacy for the presidency was also endorsed by Sarkozy.
"I saw Tony Blair the night before last and he is a remarkable man, the most pro-European of all the British," he said. "I don't know what his intentions are. But that one could think of him as a possibility is quite a smart move."
He added that Juncker, Europe's longest-serving prime minister, was also a good choice because of his long institutional memory.
Foreign policy analysts said Blair was one of the few European leaders with the status to improve the European Union's international profile while expanding its influence with Washington. But many also questioned how the man who divided Europe by supporting the war in Iraq — and who is regarded with deep resentment in many parts of the Muslim world — could ever unify Europe.
Others doubted that a candidate from Britain, which remains outside of the euro and does not subscribe to the core values codified in the new treaty, would ever receive wide endorsement.
Europe's leaders hope the new treaty will help overcome the drift that has plagued the bloc since French and Dutch voters rejected a European Union constitution two years ago. Yet the document still faces some difficult hurdles.
The major obstacle is ratification by all 27 governments, a requirement that has doomed European Union treaties in the past.
In Britain, Brown has come under severe pressure from the Conservative opposition and the European Union-skeptic tabloid press to call a popular vote on whether to ratify the treaty, a vote that polls show he would be certain to lose. In Lisbon, he insisted that a referendum was not necessary since Britain had won all the concessions it asked for, including retaining sovereignty over judicial, foreign and defense policies.
But even before he had returned to London, The Sun, Britain's best-selling newspaper, was already accusing him of surrendering centuries of British power to Brussels "in a last supper washed down with fine wine."