Who still dares to say no to Tony Blair now that the Irish have said yes to the Lisbon Treaty? That is the question many in Brussels and in a number of European capitals are asking these days now that the race for the EU's new top jobs is on. The Lisbon Treaty creates two new posts that need to be filled: that of president of the European Council of Heads of State or Government, a kind of 'EU president', and that of EU foreign minister.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair has emerged as the favourite, but he has several strikes against him. Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende's name has come up too, even if he has dismissed as 'nonsense' his ambition for a top job in Europe.
Does Balkenende really stand a chance? "It's not very likely, but I wouldn't rule it out completely," said a diplomat from one country. "He is working hard behind the scenes," said a diplomat from another member state. "His name doesn't really come up, except from Dutch journalists," said a diplomat from yet another nation.Only one position has been filled so far: José Manuel Barroso was recently confirmed for a second term as president of the European Commission. All the others will have to be chosen, not just on their merits, but so as to create the right balance between large and small countries, political families, and if possible, between men and women.
Insiders think the Liberals will not have enough political weight to claim either the EU presidency or the post of foreign minister. They will probably have to content themselves with some of the juicier Commission posts. The top jobs then would go to a Christian Democrat and a social democrat. With Barroso, the Christian Democrats already have one of the top jobs, but their People's Party also happens to be the largest political family in the European parliament.
Not too presidential, please
Barroso is also from a small country, which means that a social democrat from a large country would be ideal for on of the top jobs. That's the good news for Tony Blair.
What pleads against Blair is that he is too big of a player to content himself with just presiding over four meetings a year. Blair is likely to behave as a real president, meaning he will probably want to stick his nose in everything. Most heads of government would rather not see someone quite so ambitious in the top job. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said recently his country preferred a 'chairman' to a 'president'.
Blair is also from a country that is only halfheartedly committed to Europe. Britain is not part of the euro zone, for instance, which Germany and Belgium object too. "We need someone from a country that's at the heart of Europe," said former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene (whose own ambition to become Commission president was thwarted by John Major in 1994, who considered him too pro-European).
Several social democrats have been tipped for the job of EU foreign minister too. Germany's foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier's name has come up, although it is not clear whether his defeat at the German polls will make him more or less interested in a job in Brussels. And earlier this week Le Figaro reported that the French government has sounded out former foreign minister Hubert Védrine.
All bets still on
If the foreign minister is chosen among the social democrats this would increase Balkenende's chances for the job of EU president. Balkenende has been around, and he is not too outspoken - an important quality for the top jobs in Europe. Against him is the fact that he is from a country that has caused problems in the recent past. The Dutch voters said no to the European constitution, and the Netherlands are blocking Serbia's ascension to the EU. In the words of one foreign diplomat: "The Netherlands doesn't love the EU."
Brussels is teeming with gossip these days, with diplomats, officials and journalists all feeding each other inside information. But chances are the decision will ultimately be taken elsewhere: in Berlin or Paris. German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy will almost certainly try to reach a consensus around one candidate.
And it is early yet: the Lisbon Treaty still hinges on Czech president Václav Klaus' willingness to sign it. So until the heads of government meet in Brussels at the end of this month, anything still goes.
Five years ago Barroso only emerged as a candidate for Commission president at the last minute. Perhaps, one diplomat speculated, Balkenende will only really emerge on the scene once Blair has been officially taken out of the race. Or perhaps it will be someone different altogether.