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11th Jul 2020

'You got the Belgians running Europe?' Bush asked Blair

Ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair has burst back onto the media landscape in the UK after a three-year absence with the publication of his keenly awaited memoir in which he also reveals his regrets about the EU and other titbits such as former US President George Bush not recognising the Belgian prime minister at a G8 meeting.

Entitled "A Journey" and responsible for a media frenzy in the UK, the memoir chronicles much of his domestic political struggles but also his fateful decision to go to war in Iraq and his close relationship with Mr Bush, the instigator of the global war on terror.

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  • Tony Blair would like to have become president of the European Council (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

It also dips into his unfulfilled relationship with Europe. When he came to power in 1997, Brussels was quick to note that he was the most pro-EU British leaders ever, leading to high hopes that he would take his country into the euro.

But he admits in his book that he could not sell the idea, lacking supporting in his cabinet and surrounded by an aggressive UK press.

"Unless it was economically plain that it would be good for Britain, it was simply not politically sellable," his book says, according to the Financial Times. "The political problem was the economics."

He hoped that the economics would change but by election year in 2001, this was still not the case: "They didn't and, for me, that was that."

A gifted speaker and still happy to talk about the EU in less equivocal tones than his predecessors, Mr Blair's speech before European Parliament in 2005, while Britain had the presidency of the Union, was greeted with feverish anticipation by MEPs at the time.

But although he hit all the right notes, he never delivered on what many saw was a promise to make the EU a less divisive political issue at home.

That and his continued loyalty to George Bush, unpopular in Europe for starting the Iraq war, eroded away his popularity on the continent. However, his closeness to Mr Bush gave him a few insights into the former president's thinking about Europe.

His book reveals that Mr Bush neither recognised former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt or knew what he was doing at a G8 meeting in 2001.

"He didn't know or recognise Guy, whose advice he listened to with considerable astonishment," Mr Blair writes. "He then turned to me and whispered, 'Who is this guy?' 'He is the prime minister of Belgium,' I said. "

Mr Bush then queried why he was there as Belgium is not part of the G8 leading Mr Blair to explain that he was currently EU president, under the rotating presidency system.

"You got the Belgians running Europe?" Mr Bush reportedly responded before shaking his head.

Mr Blair's 10-year term in office end in acrimony in 2007 when his long-term party rival Gordon Brown took over the reins.

EU president

But his name re-appeared in the news while the EU was deliberating on who should become president of the European Council, a post designed to give a Europe a global face at presidential level.

While some supported the idea of his getting the job as this would immediately raise the profile of the post, it eventually went to Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian prime minister.

In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday evening (1 September) Mr Blair, whose top responsibility today is as the Quartet's special envoy to the Middle East, revealed he would have like to have been nominated for the job and did not rule out further public service in the future.

"I would have taken the presidency of the European Union. I would have been delighted to do it and gone and done public service. And I may do a public service job again in the future."

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