Battle for EU president post commences

3rd July 2009, Comments 0 comments

The question of who will secure the prize of Europe's top job will be one of the main issues of Sweden's six-months at the EU helm, which got underway Wednesday.

Stockholm -- While Jose Manuel Barroso seeks to secure a second term as head of the European Commission, a new battle has broken out for a post that doesn't even exist yet -- that of EU president.

The question of who will secure the prize of Europe's top job will be one of the main issues of Sweden's six-months at the EU helm which got underway Wednesday.

The post of President of the European Council is enshrined in the EU's reforming Lisbon Treaty, which can't come into force until all 27 member states have ratified it. So far only 23 nations have completed that process.

Whoever is picked for the job would serve a two-and-a-half-year term, renewable once.

The new top job is also aimed at finally answering former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's famous 1970 question: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?"

If the Lisbon Treaty does get the green light, notably at a second Irish referendum on the subject due in October, it will be up to the member states to pick the first EU president.

One of the leading, if undeclared, candidates so far is ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the perfect choice for those seeking a high-profile former national head.

However there are those, like the Swedes, who would prefer a more neutral figure, one less likely to push forward their own agenda.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt described a tricky role for the future incumbent, saying they would have to strike "a balance between those who want a strong personality and those who want a person only presiding the European Council".

That must also be done without putting the head of the European Commission "in the shadows", he added.

Small and medium-sized countries, Sweden included, "are less interested in this strong leader because they see a risk that they will be dominated by the big countries," he told journalists this week.

However in Paris the role is seen as more than just chairing and coordinating the collective work of the EU member states.

"If we have (the treaty of) Lisbon, I personally hope that the first council president will be someone strong and ambitious, because Europe deserves it," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Brussels recently.

Cue Blair, the preferred candidate as far as Italy's flamboyant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is concerned.

He has described the former British PM as a charismatic figure who would be the "ideal personality".

Brown's successor at Downing Street, current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has also voiced support for his former boss.

However Blair faces opposition from within the ranks of the European Left, which feels he betrayed the cause with some Thatcherite policies and by his key support for the US-led war in Iraq.

"Blair has a major problem, namely that the left in Europe does not want him," one Swedish government official said.

That problem may become personified in the figure of former socialist prime minister of Spain Felipe Gonzalez.

In late 2007 the 67-year-old was appointed to head a group of "sages" tasked with mulling the future of the European Union.

Whether Gonzalez saw his own image reflected when he gazed into European crystal ball remains unclear, but his support team is growing.

"Felipe is a good friend, we have worked together for 15 years, and I know he has the energy and the capacity for the job." EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana enthused last week.

Solana, who like Gonzalez hails from the Spanish Socialist Worker's Party, would not be drawn on possible problems arising from any 'Iberian overload' should Spaniard Gonzalez and Portuguese Barroso be under harness together, especially when Spain assumes the rotating EU national presidency for the first half of next year.

The Swedes and others want to ensure that this existing rotating presidency, which Stockholm assumed for six months on Wednesday, still has a role to play after the Lisbon Treaty is finally brought into force.

While the treaty does foresees the national EU presidencies presiding over future ministerial meetings "the system hasn't been fully thought through and there is room for potential conflict there," one European diplomat said.

Yacine Le Forestier/AFP/Expatica

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