The national governments of the European Union are divided over whether to make Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, the first full-time president of the European Council.
The leaders of UK, France and Germany are supporting Blair, who was prime minister in 1997-2007, for the job of chairing European Council meetings and representing the EU to the outside world.
But the Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg governments are leading opposition to Blair, arguing that he does not have a sufficiently pro-European background to represent the EU.
The split, combined with uncertainty over if and when the Czech Republic will ratify the Lisbon treaty, looks likely to thwart Sweden's hopes of getting a deal on the EU's top jobs – the president of the Council and the new high representative for foreign policy, as well as the list of candidates for members of the next Commission – at the meeting of the European Council on 29-30 October. The decisions could be delayed until the next European Council on 10-11 December.
A joint paper drawn up by the Benelux countries and released on Monday (5 October) says that the future president “must be someone who has demonstrated his commitment to the European project” and who has “developed a global vision of the Union's policies”. The new president should listen to the member states and the institutions and “be sensitive to the institutional balance that corresponds to the Community method”.
Underlying the carefully chosen language are fears that Blair would promote the interests of the biggest member states and ignore small and medium-sized countries. The Benelux leaders also fear that having Blair as president would weaken the role of the European Commission as the driving force of European integration, to the benefit of the Council, which is made up of national governments' representatives.
Jean-Luc Dehaene, a Belgian MEP and former prime minister, said on Saturday (3 October): “I hope that for the essential functions [in the EU] the people come from member states which participate in the heart of Europe. If you're not in Schengen and not in the euro, you're not in the heart of Europe.”
Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, who has been talked about for the post of president of the Council, has also publicly expressed fears about dominance by the big member states.
An EU diplomat from a large member state said there was a need to convince those who objected to Blair of the merits of having an internationally recognised figure.
The three large member states believe that the new president should be a commanding presence on the world stage who could talk on equal terms with US President Barack Obama and Russia's President Dimitry Medvedev. Blair also has support from the Irish government because of his role in brokering a peace deal in Northern Ireland.
Other diplomats said that the hardcore of opposition to Blair could mean a compromise candidate emerging late in the appointment process. Other names that have been mentioned include Paavo Lipponen, a former prime minister of Finland, also from the Socialist family, Herman Van Rompuy, currently prime minister of Belgium, Felipe González, a former prime minister of Spain, and Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister,
The Swedish presidency has begun meetings with member states ambassadors to discuss how the Lisbon treaty would work in practice, focusing on who would chair working group meetings in the Council of Ministers.
Diplomats say that there had been next to no progress on setting up a European External Action Service to work for the future high representative. With the Irish referendum out of the way, the presidency plans to step up the number of meetings in order to get agreement on a range of issues before a decision is taken on appointments.