President Blair can make Sarkozy's dream come true

Perhaps there are civil servants somewhere in the depths of the European commission's Berlaymont building in Brussels who remain stubbornly more excited by the fine print of the Treaty of Lisbon than by Nicolas Sarkozy's love affair with Carla Bruni. Across the rest of Europe, though, it is no contest. The narcissistic French president and his new partner are the biggest European story of 2008 by a mile - or by 1.6 kilometres, indeed.

Yet the European political story is a good one too. While the Lisbon treaty cannot compete with the way that Bruni wears her designer jeans as a topic of conversation, it too needs our full attention. All being well, the old political structures of Europe will be reshaped a year from now. If the 27 European member states can ratify the treaty - as Britain begins to do next week - the European Union will at last be far better poised to play the role in the world that so many wish it to play, and a foolish few still fear.

Sarkozy may be in love, but his mind is clearly fixed on that not so distant European political moment. Ours should be too. That's partly because the moment is inherently significant. But it is also because it is now beyond doubt that the French president is actively promoting Tony Blair as the first full-time president of the reformed European council - a post created by the treaty.

Blair's appearance in Paris last weekend to speak at a conference of Sarkozy's UMP party was an unambiguous sign of the French leader's intentions. Sarkozy first floated the idea of President Blair last year. But the weekend promotion of the former prime minister was a declaration of more serious intent. You don't invite a British politician to address a French political rally, or a man of the centre-left to address a party of the centre-right, merely as a caprice. You do it because you have a project. And Sarkozy's is an updated version of the classic Gaullist dream - a Europe, Blair in the chair, that shapes the world.

Whether Blair himself is up for the job is not so clear-cut. The consensus seems to be that he is interested, but not yet committed. He has a very full diary already. His interest would depend on the content of the presidential role. If it was minimalist, mainly concerned with chairing meetings, shuttling between EU capitals to expedite lowest-common-denominator compromises and managing the agenda, then forget it. "Can you imagine him sitting there listening to the prime minister of Slovenia setting out the nine reasons why he can't go along with something?" says one longtime Blair ally. "No, nor can I."

If the job comes with real power, on the other hand, then you are talking. If the president is Europe's representative in the world, with authority not just to manage but to set the agenda on issues such as European defence and international trade, then Blair would be seriously tempted. "Don't forget that when he was prime minister he was the progenitor of this new role," another experienced associate points out. "He has always wanted an EU that acts strategically. He thinks that everything is possible."

But which job description will it be? The answer is not yet clear. Most governments are still thinking more about getting the treaty approved than getting it implemented. Sarkozy, though, is thinking ahead. In the second half of this year, France will hold the rotating EU presidency that the treaty will eventually replace, and Sarkozy is aiming to write the presidential job spec personally. If that happens, Blair will have to come off the fence.

There is, though, the not insignificant matter of getting the necessary support. Blair is a controversial figure in his own right, mainly because of Iraq and the alliance with George Bush - but also, in some quarters, because of his free-ranging political instincts and because, in his 10 years as prime minister, he turned out not to be the federalist that some had hoped. He also faces problems simply because he is British. Smaller EU countries are sensitive to key jobs being taken by leaders from any of the larger countries, especially from one that is not part of the Eurozone or the Schengen free-movement area, and that actively supports Turkish membership.

On the assumption that the eventual job description is to Blair's liking, it will all come down to winning support and the strength of the competition. Apart from Blair, the two names most often mentioned are the former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, who is being promoted by Germany, and the current Luxembourg prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker. Neither has anything approaching the public profile of Blair in the rest of Europe or in the wider world. In some eyes, though, this is an attraction. In EU politics, to be the candidate of France and Britain (always assuming that Gordon Brown actually backs Blair) is no guarantee of ultimate success. Europe is full of people who prefer a quiet life.

To get the job and to do it, Blair will sometimes need to curb his "my way or the highway" instincts. If he doesn't, it could all go horribly wrong. Yet even at this early stage, it is not hard to see the battle for the presidency as a defining event. If the member states prefer a business-as-usual EU, then the prime minister of Luxembourg would seem an appropriate choice. If they want the outward- rather than inward-looking EU that all Britain's political parties will extol in the coming Commons debates, then Blair, though not the only qualified candidate in the 27 nations, is clearly a very strong one. If we want the influential EU that Brown talked about this week and that the Chinese, whom he is now visiting, also wish to foster, then the finger points in Blair's direction too.

As ever, European decision-making is like juggling a Rubik's Cube. Many interests have to be balanced, and both Blair and the EU have baggage. Sarkozy, eager to be Europe's kingmaker in 2009, no doubt contemplates the possibility of being European Union president himself when the job next becomes vacant in 2012. Yet in the end it all comes down to whether we think that the long-term interests of our 27 proud but small European nations are better advanced and protected in the world by a strong and engaged EU or by a weak one. In that context, the question that both the EU and Blair must surely ask themselves is the same one: why not?

Martin Kettle