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Musical chairs underway for new EU leadership

National rivalries drive the 28-member European Union and the inevitable horse trading which will produce a new leadership as the bloc seeks to put the hugely damaging economic crisis behind it.

The main focus is who will succeed Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso who steps down October 31, with the parliamentary parties already lining up their candidates to pre-empt any deal cobbled together by the member states.

At the Commission level, another key appointment will be who replaces Briton Catherine Ashton as foreign affairs head, tackling a difficult agenda of Iran nuclear talks and growing problems in central Africa.

Council president Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium, who represents member states, leaves November 30 after serving a second term in an institution some believe now overshadows the once all-powerful Commission.

EU leaders determine who leads the Council, an appointment which will be closely weighed against who they get for the Commission post.

Meanwhile, all 751 MEPs will be replaced in May polls for a Parliament anxious to flex its muscles across the whole EU agenda, especially on economic policy.

The newly-elected assembly will meet in July to name a new chair to replace German Socialist Martin Schulz who has been a forceful voice pressing for greater democratic accountability in an EU of some 500 million people.

Parliament ambitious to have its say

Up to now, it has been national leaders who have decided the top EU appointments — Barroso famously got the Commission post when backed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a compromise candidate.

But the 2009 Lisbon Treaty states leaders must now "take into account" the popular vote for parliament.

Technically, they are not compelled to respect that call and it is clear for many, it will be business as usual in choosing the next head of the Commission.

To counter that possibility, the political parties in Parliament are drawing up lists of their candidates for the Commission.

The Social Democrats on the left are backing Parliament head Schulz but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not a fan of her countryman, leaving Danish Premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt as a possible alternative.

The centrist Liberals will choose February 1 between former Belgium premier Guy Verhofstadt — who lost out to Barroso in 2004 — and Olli Rehn of Sweden, currently the EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs and who has played a leading role in efforts to tame the eurozone debt crisis.

Rehn, in some eyes, has been tainted by his hard line on the need for austerity — spending cuts and higher taxes to stabilise public finances — while the focus has turned more to the need to stimulate growth and jobs.

The centre-right European People’s Party, the largest in Parliament, meets in Dublin in March, with current EU Financial Markets Commissioner Michel Barnier and former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker the top two names.

Juncker led the eurozone group of finance ministers through the worst of a debt crisis which nearly wrecked the single currency and is known for his sometimes blunt manner.

Other EPP names mentioned in Brussels include Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who has said he is not interested, plus his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk and Finland’s Jyrki Katainen.

Favourites or dark horses, all know that it is the subtle art of compromise that determines the final outcome.

Interests and rivalries are carefully weighed between left, centre and right; between the small and the large members in a mix stirred by the many personalities at work and concerns over ensuring a real gender balance.

With so many imponderables, the result is very often not what might be expected.

Britain’s Blair himself was clear favourite to head the Council but as the fallout from the US-led Iraq invasion festered, it was Van Rompuy who got the nod as the less controversial.

With Blair out of the picture, it was thought his Labour party colleague and foreign minister David Miliband was a certainty to get the new EU external affairs post only for it to go the relatively unknown EU Trade Commissioner — Catherine Ashton.

Alain Jean-Robert / AFP / Expatica