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Hope fades for Blair's EU role

Tony Blair received an unwelcome 55th birthday present from France yesterday. President Nicolas Sarkozy has abandoned his efforts to push the former prime minister's claim to be the first permanent president of the European Union Council from next year.

M. Sarkozy, who takes over the rotating EU presidency in July, is now backing the candidature of Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg Prime Minister, according to senior French officials. The French President was once a strong Blair-backer, floating the idea himself last year, but he has bowed to pressure from other EU governments.

Some countries are anti-Blair. Others oppose the idea that the new post should go to a political heavyweight, who might try to inflate the importance of the new job.

By supporting Mr Juncker's candidacy, M. Sarkozy could be placing himself on a collision course with Gordon Brown, five weeks after he made a speech in Westminster hailing a new Anglo-French brotherhood.

Britain does not want to see the EU Council presidency go to Mr Juncker, who is regarded in London as a federalist, but the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a strong supporter. One other option said to be under discussion is that the job should go the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, with Mr Juncker replacing him as head of the EU executive.

Sources close to Mr Blair suggest that he would be interested in taking the job but only if it is a done deal.

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