Michael McGowan: We should be at the heart of Europe, but not with Tony Blair as President

I AM tempted to wish that the Irish vote "No" to the Lisbon Treaty in the referendum on Friday, if only to make sure that we do not have a first President of Europe by the name of Tony Blair.

But the Irish vote, which follows last June's "No", is far more important than that. Its approval would open the way for big changes in decision-making to begin at the EU summit in Brussels in late October, including the selection of a new President of Europe.

It is about the future of Europe and besides the appointment both of a permanent President of Europe and Foreign Policy chief, issues at stake include changes to improve social policy, powers to increase support for Third World countries, and updating procedures to reflect and improve the effectiveness of

the EU.

By voting "No" last year, Ireland has provided an historic opportunity that should be grasped by the scruff of the neck. Both the "Yes" and "No" campaigns are demanding big changes in the EU, better and fairer deals for European citizens, greater efficiency and less waste, and more transparency and democracy in the EU to reflect its growth from six to 27 member states with others knocking on the door.

No one should pretend that the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is just about tidying up procedures of the larger EU. It is far more than that and includes the contentious power of the EU to reduce the number of commissioners.

In the debate about the Irish referendum, what stands out a mile is the glaring lack of political leadership in the EU which may explain the interest in appointing a permanent President of Europe if the Irish vote "Yes".

Tony Blair has been touting for the job for some time to add to his lucrative portfolio and has even been mentioned as favourite to get it.

However, Gordon Brown should make it clear that the choice of Tony Blair for President of Europe does not have his blessing.

The comment attributed to Glenys Kinnock, the new Europe Minister, speaking to journalists in Strasbourg in July that the British government is backing Tony Blair for the President of Europe appears to have been a mistake and it would be helpful for Brown to make clear that his predecessor does not have the support of the Government.

Blair would see the job as a high profile grandstanding position on the world stage with plenty of air miles. And his failure to show solidarity with Europe on Iraq should eliminate him from any serious consideration for President of Europe. He was out of step with European political and public opinion apart from his friend and holiday host,

Mr Berlusconi.

Other possible candidates include Felipe Gonzalez of Spain, Wolfgang Schussel of Austria and Paavo Lipponen from Finland but Britain needs to get moving to put forward an alternative candidate to Blair in case the Lisbon Treaty receives the approval of the Irish.

A strong candidate from Britain for the post of President of the European Union would be Chris Patten who has to be rated as one of the more heavyweight and internationally respected UK politicians of recent times. His experience as a UK Government Minister, as European Commissioner for External Affairs with responsibility for international development, and the last Governor of Hong Kong would make him a serious candidate. The appointment of Chris Patten as the first President of the European Union would be good for Britain, good for Europe and good for the developing world. It would also signal a determination that Britain intends to play a greater part at the heart of Europe.

Chris Patten would be a strong voice in Europe. His presence would help to counter the isolation of Britain now that the Conservatives have broken away from the mainstream centre right group of Christian Democrats in the European Parliament and the group of Labour MEPs has shrunk to little more than the size of a football team not to mention the UK sending UKIP and two BNP members to Europe.

The European Union grew out of the horrors of the Second World War, a history of concentration camps and mass cemeteries and centuries of violence in Europe. It has the potential to be the greatest resource for peace in the world, but needs to strengthen its leadership. Britain should rise to the challenge and offer that leadership.

Gordon Brown needs to move quickly.

The Irish referendum on Lisbon provides an historic opportunity for Britain to shed its reputation as a reluctant member of the EU and play a leading role in the political leadership of the EU whatever the outcome.

If the Irish vote "Yes", a serious bid by Britain for the top job of President of Europe with a clear "Yes" to Patten and "No" to Blair would be an excellent start. Don't let's blow it.

Michael McGowan is the former MEP for Leeds and President of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.