Belgium reluctant to see PM leave for EU president job

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Belgian commentators on Friday voiced concern at a seemingly unstoppable wave of backing for their country's prime minister Herman Van Rompuy to be offered the new EU president's role.

Brussels - Belgian commentators on Friday voiced concern at a seemingly unstoppable wave of backing for their country's prime minister Herman Van Rompuy to be offered the new EU president's role.

Van Rompuy was called by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel after that pair's "tete-a-tete" dinner in Paris on October 28 "to tell him that they were thinking about him for the European president's job," the Brussels daily Le Soir reported Friday.

The answer was that the 62-year-old Van Rompuy "is ready to go," one Belgian diplomat told AFP.

While the initial Belgian reaction was incredulity that Van Rompuy had emerged as the bookmakers' hot favourite, it has now turned to concern that his departure could push the country into a constitutional crisis.

The astute, bridge-building Flemish Christian Democrat leader's emergence follows a fall in the prospects of former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Current British Foreign Secretary David Miliband could be the beneficiary of the changing momentum, as he now stands as the favourite to secure the other post created under the bloc's Lisbon Treaty, that of EU foreign policy supremo.

While not publicly confirming his endorsement, Sarkozy has praised Van Rompuy, saying: "I think nothing but good about him. He is a very good man, an intelligent man," the French leader told journalists this week.

There's the rub -- the Belgian political elite also think he is very good, almost indispensable.

The weekly magazine Le Vif-L'Express summed up the mood. "It is an honour that the country could have done without," it wrote under the headline "Van Rompuy superstar".

"His departure, if it is confirmed, could well throw the country into a new period of turbulence," it warned.

Van Rompuy only assumed the premiership last December, succeeding Yves Leterme whose fall was linked to the failure of the major Fortis bank but was also marked by feuding between Belgium's richer Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders and the poorer francophone Wallonia south.

The Flemish want more autonomy whereas the Walloons to the south fear this would be a precursor to the country splitting in two.

It is precisely Van Rompuy's abilities as a moderator, consensus-builder and, also important domestically, as a linguist, which the EU appreciates and which Belgium wants to retain.

The Belgians may be hoping that Blair, or other candidates such as Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende or his Luxembourg counterpart Jean-Claude Juncker get the nod instead.

If a candidate from one of the small Benelux countries is likely to secure the post, whose role is ill-defined by the treaty, it could leave the way clear for Miliband to assume the role of EU high representative for foreign affairs, already dubbed 'Europe's foreign minister'.

Diplomats say that the focus is increasingly being put on the foreign policy post which will come with a large secretariat and the grand title of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

While Blair may appear to be tainted by his support for the unpopular Iraq war and Britain's failure to adopt the euro or join Europe's passport-free Schengen zone, his fellow Labour party member Miliband could benefit from Britain's strong foreign policy clout.

"The big countries have a tradition of a large diplomatic service and armed forces and are not neutral," said France's European Affairs Minister Pierre Lellouche.

He is also appreciably younger than the presidency candidates, another useful balance.

"He's like a young Tony Blair, but better," said an ally of Martin Schulz, the head of the Socialists in the European parliament, who are backing Miliband for the foreign policy job.


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