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EU leaders likely to name Belgian leader president

Brussels — Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy emerged Thursday as a near certain choice to become the European Union’s first president after Britain dropped its backing for Tony Blair.

The move left Van Rompuy and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker as the only known and likely candidates to be the new face of the European Union.

"Rompuy seems certain," one EU diplomat said ahead of an EU summit in Brussels after European centre-left leaders persuaded Britain to drop its insistence on Blair.

At a working dinner, the 27 EU heads of state and government were seeking consensus candidate for the post and also for the job of EU foreign policy supremo, decisions that will be a barometer of their ambitions for the new-look European Union from next year.

"Our only goal is to find a candidate who can win broad European consensus," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said as she arrived for the talks. "We must work together."

Britain agreed to drop Blair after centre-left leaders agreed that British EU Commissioner Catherine Ashton should go forward as their candidate for the second new role of foreign policy supremo.

"When it became clear that because of the various political considerations and varying views among the rest of the members (on Blair), then the prime minister (Gordon Brown) made the forceful step of proposing Catherine Ashton for the high representative’s position," a Downing Street spokesman said.

In an early move that helped cut the list of candidates, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende ruled himself out.

"I’m not a candidate, no one has asked me to be one," he told reporters.

Before the meeting, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, expressed concern that some leaders were ready to opt for lowest common denominator candidates.

He said a number of his fellow foreign ministers fear "certain heads of government are leaning towards a minimal solution for the presidency question, which could reduce our chance of having a clear voice in the world.

"This could mean — from our point of view — missing a historic occasion," he wrote on his Internet blog.

Differences over political affiliations, geographical considerations and even gender have sucked credibility from the process, and leaders are still bickering over what role the president should play, possibly for five years.

Van Rompuy remains the favourite as the leaders leaned towards a president who can build 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.

Other possibles include Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Europe’s longest-serving leader, and former Irish premier John Bruton.

Calls had mounted for women to be named to one of the roles.

While not set in stone, it was 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 grouping.

If the horse-trading cannot produce consensus candidates, the choice can be made with a qualified majority vote. Whatever the method, the meeting looks like it could drag on.

"It might take a few hours, it might take all night," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.