Tony Blair is poised to become the first President of Europe after it was confirmed that French leader Nicolas Sarkozy is determined to help him win the post.
A senior aide to President Sarkozy told a private gathering of senior British and French politicians that he is to tell fellow EU leaders that Mr Blair is the only man who can help Europe stand up to the rest of the world.
The remark by Alain Minc, a key member of Mr Sarkozy’s inner circle, is the second French blow to Gordon Brown’s standing in two days, coming after Mr Sarkozy said Mr Brown’s decision to combat the recession by cutting VAT was a ‘mistake’.
Mr Minc, a political wheeler-dealer, entrepreneur and TV show host, was attending a meeting last month of the Franco British Colloque, a high-powered discussion group of British and French politicians, civil servants and opinion-formers.
Members are under orders not to reveal the confidential discussions, but The Mail on Sunday has established that Mr Minc used the meeting to win support for Mr Sarkozy’s campaign to ensure Mr Blair becomes the President of Europe.
The role is due to be created next year – but only if the EU’s controversial Lisbon Treaty is ratified in the autumn by Ireland and the Czech Republic, the two EU countries which have so far refused to do so.
Mr Minc told the gathering, which was also attended by French Prime Minister Francois Fillon: ‘When the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, Europe will move into a new phase. Europe will need a strong leader and Nicolas Sarkozy will nominate Tony Blair for the position.’
Mr Minc explained why Mr Sarkozy was determined to overcome opposition to Mr Blair from a handful of EU leaders, notably German chancellor Angela Merkel.
He said: ‘We have to unite and say to Mrs Merkel that we cannot afford not to have Tony Blair, who will be a strong figurehead, is entirely respected around the world and will be a commanding leader at the helm of Europe.’
Mr Minc has been described by one commentator as ‘France’s Peter Mandelson’. Indeed, his AM Conseil consultancy has employed Lord Mandelson as an ‘adviser’ in the past and the two are members of the Policy Network think-tank.
The conference took place in Versailles, days after Mr Blair visited Paris to chair a conference for Mr Sarkozy on the economic crisis, in what was seen as the latest part of a charm offensive to boost his chances of winning the EU presidency.
Mr Blair paid glowing tribute to Mr Sarkozy’s recent performance in the rotating EU presidency, saying: ‘Under his leadership, Europe looked as if it were acting in concert.’
Mr Blair was referred to as Prime Minister Blair throughout – Mr Brown was not even invited.
The post of President of the EU’s Council of Ministers will replace the current system under which the EU nations on a six-monthly basis. Supporters say it is the only way to give the presidency rotates among EU a strong voice.
Critics claim it is another step on the road to a European superstate.
Publicly, Mr Blair says he is not campaigning for a job ‘which does not even exist’.
Privately, friends say he would relish it.
Likewise, in public Mr Brown’s advisers say he is ‘relaxed’ about the prospect.
Privately, they admit it is a ‘nightmare’ which would further diminish his status.
Mr Minc was not the only person at the conference to make provocative remarks about ‘President Blair’.
Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell, tipped to succeed Mr Brown as Labour leader, is in hot water after apparently backing the idea.
Asked if Mr Blair was the right man for the job, Mr Purnell said: ‘We need someone who is a world-respected statesman, has experience of being involved in intractable international issues like the Irish peace process, and, while being on the Centre Left, understands how the markets work and sparkles with charisma…’
As Mr Purnell, a close ally of Mr Blair, paused for effect, there were gasps from some in the audience who realised they were meant to think he was referring to Mr Brown’s predecessor.
He then added: ‘…which is why I nominate Bill Clinton.’
The joke was not lost on fellow guests, who knew that, as an American, Mr Clinton is not eligible.
A spokesman for Mr Purnell said: ‘It was an after-dinner gag. He did not endorse Mr Blair.’