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The EU Needs a Face, But Which One?

09/06/2014 16:09 BST | Updated 06/08/2014 10:59 BST

This week's by-election result in Newark, finally saw the Conservatives able to defeat UKIP, stemming the momentum the latter had earned in recent weeks and months as witnessed in the European elections at the end of May. UKIP's wait for a Westminster breakthrough therefore continues, they had promised an earthquake but in reality only produced a minor tremor. With the Conservative majority slashed by nearly 10,000 however, it highlights that many voters were still lost by the incumbent party. Moreover, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both said that some of their supporters had voted Conservative tactically in order to keep UKIP out. This claim is impossible to quantify without much deeper research but it suggests the beginnings of an anti-UKIP backlash, almost a protest vote against a protest vote if you will.

Whilst the victory of UKIP at the European election highlights the current mood of the nation regarding the European Union, its political standing appears to be less stable domestically, despite an impressive showing in local elections, in a general election scenario for seats in the UK Parliament under the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, it is possible such a backlash and a tactical voting could become the norm nationwide. UKIP could also be seen as a more one-dimensional party in comparison to its more established rivals with many voters associating it solely with issues of immigration and withdrawal from the EU.

What's more, with its new found success, UKIP's rivals have begun to sharpen their blades as the party comes under more scrutiny than ever before. Party leader Nigel Farage is "deceiving" voters by fuelling "grievances" about immigration and Europe, Tony Blair has said. The former Prime Minister said that it is "dangerous and wrong" for Britain's political leaders to pander to "unpleasant prejudices" and an "attitude which says we don't like foreigners". He said that politicians should not tell the "white, working class, unemployed youth" that they would find jobs if there were fewer Polish people working in the UK. He said that the answer should be to provide young people with the education and skills they need to "face the world's challenges and overcome them."

In a strongly pro European speech at the London Business School, Mr Blair said that Britain should play a leading role in reforming the EU instead of leaving it. In a strong criticism of UKIP, he said: "It is not those who argue that Britain should be in Europe who are at odds with our nation's history, but those who under the false banner of independence would make this country dependent on global powers."Who would have us exit from the principal stage of the world, on the grounds we would be better able to write our own script, when all that would in reality happen is that the stage would remain, the play would continue, the actors would act, but without our participation. This is not satisfying our national interest; it is traducing it."

Mr Blair accepted the victories of UKIP in the UK and the National Front in France and the election of "anti-Europe" parties signifies something. He added: "The election results matter. They are a wake-up call to Europe and to Britain". However, the former Labour leader warned not to underestimate the costs of leaving Europe saying "the world works today through connectivity. The more connected you are, the better you can cope".

All this arrives as the EU's 28 leaders are trying to agree who should replace Jose Manuel Barroso as the top man in Brussels. The EU needs a leader who could 'drive through a big agenda' and whilst Mr Blair denied he was interested in becoming President of the European Commission, he declined to give his support to Jean Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg for 18 years who says he is "confident" of getting the job due to the continued overall dominance of the European People's Party in parliament. David Cameron is also opposed to Mr Juncker's appointment and is winning growing support across Europe for a pro-reform candidate. The Prime Minister is said to have warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a summit last week Britain could leave the EU if Juncker is handed the job telling his counterpart: "a figure from the 80s cannot resolve the problems of the next five years" according to Der Spiegel.. Other possible candidates include Ireland's Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. Former director-general of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy of France has also been touted.

But why not Tony Blair himself? Here is a man with required experience of main event politics, pro-European reform, readily available, a recognisable name on the continent and thanks to the way he originally and rather unceremoniously exited the political stage, a chip on his shoulder.

Well, a major reason why not it is because it appears Mr Blair has his eyes on the role of President of the European Council, as opposed to the Commission. His speech to the CBI was largely a job description for this position. He argued that the council - the forum for the elected heads of EU nation states - needs to assert its authority over the unelected European commission, laying out a clear manifesto for change. This included a looser arrangement for the eurozone giving deficit laden nations greater leeway, a clearer energy policy, greater free trade and more cooperation in defence. At the same time he said the commission had to be aware that Europeans believe the nation state comes first.

Five years ago Mr Blair was blocked from becoming president of the European council by Merkel and insists he had no personal ambitions. As denials go that is pretty categorical, but it was more specifically directed to the post of European commission president than that of council president. Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian president of the European council, completes his second and final term in November. If a deadlock remains at the end of the year over a replacement, Blair's name may be promoted. It still feels as if Blair, at 61, has a big job in him. Since leaving Westminster, the former prime minister has juggled a successful advisory business with his charitable interests and role as Middle East envoy for a quartet of western powers. Yet questions over whether Mr Blair still has ambitions for a prominent role in Europe have never truly gone away.

He again came out fighting this week after the established political parties awakened to find that populist anti-EU groups had taken a significant portion of the vote. "When the world is changing so fast, to end up having the debate dominated by anti-immigrant feeling and a desire to get Britain out of Europe, these are not solutions for the 21st century," he told Swedish television. The former prime minister had previously also re-ignited the suggestion he was looking for a way back into European politics in 2012, when he called for a directly elected EU president. "An election for a big post held by one person - this people can understand," he said. "The problem with the European Parliament is that though clearly democratically elected, my experience is people don't feel close to their MEPs."

By autumn this year, the Chilcot inquiry into the origins of the Iraq war will have been published, and Blair will have defended his actions, including whether he took the country to war based on a lie. The inquiry's conclusions will be unlikely to change the views of many, but the issue will be settled publically. Admittedly, many voters stopped listening to Mr Blair because of the Iraq war. For some, he no longer has standing at all; for others, although they may approve of his views on Europe, his standing remains overshadowed by Iraq. Today's politics needs more politicians with standing, however, not fewer. Declining party identification, the failure to solve economic problems, parliamentary behaviour, resistance to reforms and an unforgiving media spotlight have all contributed to this.

Mr Blair represents an extreme case but his struggle for standing spotlights a wider issue. Senior politicians are getting younger when they take office - and when they leave. Mr Blair left Downing Street at the age of 54. In 12 months, David Cameron may be a former prime minister at 48. Many recent ministers have left politics similarly early, with as much as 30 years of public life ahead of them. The House of Lords still beckons for some, although no ex-prime minister since Lady Thatcher has taken a peerage. Nevertheless, the reality is that British politics makes poor use of its elders. As stated earlier, at 61, Mr Blair potentially still has much to offer politics.

Tony Blair has now set out his stall on Europe. It attacks the big issues, but it may be that he comes with too much history, baggage as well as too many enemies for it to progress any further. Who else is there?