EU leaders split over president ahead of summit

19th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

At an upcoming summit in Brussels, the 27 heads of state and government want to name, unanimously if possible, the president and a foreign policy supremo to represent Europe on the world stage.

Brussels -- Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt appealed Wednesday for a new effort by EU leaders to agree the name of the first president of the revamped European Union.

At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, the 27 heads of state and government want to name, unanimously if possible, the president and a foreign policy supremo to represent Europe on the world stage.

"I need of course the collaboration of my colleagues to try to get this through tomorrow night," Reinfeldt said in Stockholm ahead of the political horse-trading.

The EU summit "might take a few hours, it might take all night," warned Reinfeldt, who will chair the talks as his country holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy remains the most favoured name, but no candidate has been able to strike the delicate balance required for either of the key posts, which were created by the new Lisbon reform treaty.

In recent months a score of names has been raised, and many discarded, as EU leaders seek a personality with some charisma but modest enough not to hog the limelight.

Reinfeldt said he had worked overtime trying to get in touch with other leaders but suggested that much remains to be done before the Brussels summit dinner.

"Try to get into contact with 26 head of states within 24 hours, good luck," he said. "These are people who tend to have other things to attend to as well, besides talking to me."

Experts agree that a technocrat capable of building consensus among countries and the EU's main institutions -- the council of nations for the 27 member states, the European Commission and the European parliament -- is required for president.

Former British premier Tony Blair has been the most high-profile name floated, but his key role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq divided Europe and despite continued backing from London, his star has faded.

Typically, a number of candidates have emerged from mid-sized pro-European nations, such as Van Rompuy and Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Europe's longest-serving leader, is also in the running for a term of up to five years that could set the standard for the post in future.

Former Irish premier John Bruton has been trumpeting his own cause in the media.

Calls have mounted for women to be nominated, but only former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga has come forward, and analysts say she may be too pro-American and anti-Russian.

While it is not set in stone, it is widely accepted that the president should come from the centre-right, which dominates the European parliament, and the foreign affairs chief be a socialist, the second formation.

For the latter, post Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband was widely touted, but he insists he is not available. Clearly if he did get the job that would torpedo Blair's chances, with two Britons unlikely to win top jobs.

Former Italian premier Massimo D'Alema appears to have the right credentials, and he received a ringing endorsement Tuesday from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, whose job will disappear next year.

"I think he would make a great high representative for the European Union," said Solana, who as current top EU diplomat negotiates on behalf of the bloc in the Middle East, Iran and the Balkans.

The Spanish government is pushing Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, while Britain's EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton is another possibility.

After months of speculation, Swedish officials hope for real movement once the leaders are alone at dinner, away from the interest groups driving debate.

If consensus proves elusive, the decisions could be made by qualified majority.

Favourites for top EU jobs:

1. President of the European Council

HERMAN VAN ROMPUY: The 62-year-old haiku-writing Belgian prime minister is well versed in the diplomatic art of keeping feuding factions together, as he presides over a coalition government formed from Dutch-speaking north and the francophones in the south.

That success may be his main handicap. Many Belgian officials fear that losing him to the EU could plunge the country into a fresh crisis.

JAN PETER BALKENENDE: The 53-year-old Christian-Democrat Dutch government chief has an impressive national track record, currently leading a coalition government which is his fourth cabinet.

His detractors point out that he was in charge when Dutch voters rejected the EU constitution -- the Lisbon Treaty's predecessor -- in 2005.

JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER: Europe's longest-serving leader, Luxembourg's 54-year-old prime minister has said he will take the post if asked. A convinced European, he chairs Eurogroup meetings of finance ministers from the 16 countries which use the euro.

He was been criticised in some quarters for not reacting quickly enough to the financial crisis because of his country's role as a secret banking haven.

The British consider him too federalist.

TONY BLAIR: The 56-year-old former British premier is the heavyweight choice.

Current British PM Gordon Brown has been insisting on his candidacy despite a lack of support elsewhere.

He certainly has the clout to talk nose-to-nose with leaders in China, Russia and the United States, but his role in the Iraq conflict, and Britain's failure to adopt the euro or join the Schengen passport-free zone make it difficult to form a consensus around him.

WOLFGANG SCHUESSEL: The 64-year-old former Austrian chancellor maintains good relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some nations reproach him for opening his coalition government to the extreme right party of Joerg Haider.

VAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGA: Latvia's 'Iron Lady,' is an intellectual former president who was instrumental in getting her country into both the EU and NATO. She has the advantage amid heavy lobbying for a woman to get one of the posts, but at 71 her age may count against her.

A pro-Atlanticist, she supported the Iraq war.

2. High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy

MASSIMO D'ALEMA: The 60-year-old served as Italian foreign minister in the late 1990s.

He has strong support among European socialists but his communist past may be too much for Britain to swallow. He also suffers from his poor mastery of the English language.

DAVID MILIBAND: The 44-year old British foreign secretary has made a good impression in Brussels. The former Blair protégé has declared himself out of the race, but that has not stopped his name being whispered in corridors as an acceptable British choice.

MIGUEL ANGEL MORATINOS: The 58-year-old Spanish Foreign Minister has recently been pushed into the frame by his PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

He has led Spain's rapprochement with Cuba, encouraging the rest of the EU to do the same. However his country's failure to recognise Kosovo's independence could hurt his chances.

CATHERINE ASHTON: Currently Britain's EU Trade Commissioner, the 53-year-old baroness is rapidly acquiring a reputation in Brussels for quiet but effective diplomacy.

ELISABETH GUIGOU: 63-year-old former French European affairs minister, closely involved in the gestation of the EU's Maastricht treaty.


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