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29th Mar 2020

Patten signals interest in EU foreign minister job

British politician Chris Patten has said the EU should take a tougher line on Russia, Israel and selfish member states in a mini-manifesto for the post of EU foreign relations chief.

His speech, delivered at a seminar in the European Parliament in Brussels on Monday (28 September), outlined a four-part EU foreign policy involving: a "robust" defence of Russia's neighbours, sanctions against Iran, enlargement to Ukraine and Turkey and building stronger relations with China, India and Brazil.

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"Over the past few years, we've given the Russians the impression that we've accepted their notion of sphere of influence as though we were still dealing with the diplomacy of the 19th century. I don't think we've been firm enough in our dealings with Russia," Mr Patten said.

Describing Russian gas supplier Gazprom as Moscow's "weapon of choice," he advocated "establishing a single European energy policy and persuading countries such as Germany and Italy to give up the idea of having national energy champions" as a countermove.

He took several swipes at the EU's reluctance to stand up to Israel on issues such as illegal settlement building in the West Bank or its bloody assault on Gaza earlier this year.

"Sometimes there are member states which seem to prefer in practice giving the Israeli foreign ministry a veto over European policy," Mr Patten said.

"I can't remember any other time when I felt more humiliated at being a European," he remarked on the Gaza events.

The former EU commissioner also hammered Germany in his analysis of emerging threats to the union's ambition to become a global economic power.

Mr Patten said that Berlin's handling of the recent takeover of car maker Opel is not about "seeking to protect European jobs and European plants. It is trying to protect German jobs and German plants ... The European Commission cannot possibly stand on the sidelines while the single market is wrecked."

Joking aside

The British politician re-iterated his interest in taking on the new job of EU foreign minister, as drawn up in the Lisbon Treaty. But he made light of his chances with characteristic wit. "Given the sort of sentiments I just expressed, the likelihood of anybody asking me is even more remote," he said.

At first glance, Mr Patten is an outside bet.

As a member of the British Conservative party, his European credentials have been marred by the party's vaulting euroscepticism. The EU's centre-left political family has also laid claim to the foreign minister job after seeing a centre-right politician take the European Commission president post.

But the composition of the audience at Monday's seminar gave an indication of how seriously his candidature is being considered in Brussels.

Among the 80 or so MEPs and commission officials, senior EU establishment figures such as Belgian industrialist Etienne Davignon and the EU's special representative to the Middle East, Marc Otte, gave up their evening to hear him speak.

Mr Patten is highly popular among EU officials, who say the task of building a new EU institution - the External Action Service - would be impossible for someone with no previous experience at European commissioner level.

The Blair gambit

On this logic, the UK's open backing of ex-prime minister Tony Blair for the other Lisbon Treaty job of EU president could be a gambit designed to later sacrifice the Blair candidacy for a Patten appointment.

Mr Patten in an aside on Monday poked fun at the ex-PM's alleged gutlessness in his current role as an international envoy to the Middle East.

"Perhaps the only good thing which came out of it [the recent Gaza conflict] from a European point of view was that it led eventually to Mr Blair visiting Gaza, which he was unable to do for some reason before," he quipped.

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