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Last updated: October 29, 2009 11:06 pm

Backing for Blair candidacy falters

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Pre-summit talks: German chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish premier Fredrik Reinfeldt, and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso

Tony Blair’s chances of becoming the EU’s first full-time president were in serious trouble late on Thursday, as a Brussels summit opened with a chorus of criticism for the former British prime minister from his own supposed centre-left allies.

Meanwhile, British officials say the political mood suggests that support for Mr Blair is waning in a number of European capitals and that even Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, may be about to drop his long-standing backing.

The two-day EU summit is supposed to be discussing issues such as climate change and treaty revisions, but many of the bloc’s 27 leaders were feverishly discussing privately who should become the union’s new president.

Tony Blair had emerged as a front-runner but on Thursday the tide seemed to turn strongly against him in Brussels, notably in a stormy meeting of European social democrats.

Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, made an impassioned appeal for his fellow socialists to back Mr Blair, but there was very little support and plenty of criticism for a man whose support for the Iraq war was highly divisive.

Martin Schulz, top socialist in the European parliament, said his party should instead concentrate on securing a separate new job of EU foreign policy chief – a post which he believes could be highly influential.

But Mr Brown was plainly irritated by what he saw as the group’s lack of ambition. “You need to get real – this is a unique opportunity to get a strong progressive politician to be president of the council.”

Onlookers said Mr Brown left the meeting in a foul mood. British diplomats said it was right that the prime minister had made the case for Mr Blair, but seemed resigned to the fact he would not get the job.

Mr Brown fears that Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, may have agreed at a private meeting on Wednesday night in Paris that Mr Blair was too controversial and unpopular to take the post.

Mr Blair’s own team believe that neither Paris nor Berlin have made a final decision and that his possible candidature – still not even formally declared – is not dead in the water.

British pessimism may be an attempt to focus attention on alternatives for the post, none of whom carry Mr Blair’s star appeal. Other potential candidates include Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, and Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg.

Meanwhile, the European socialist group has a number of possible candidates for the foreign policy post, of whom David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary, is the favourite.

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