EU seeks to lift last treaty obstacle, look to future
Brussels -- European Union leaders gathered Thursday hoping to lift the final obstacle to the Lisbon reform treaty and pave the way for the EU to name its first president.
Over two days of talks in Brussels, the EU’s Swedish presidency aimed to hone a response to 11th hour demands by the deeply euroskeptic Czech president, Vlaclav Klaus, so the massive reform package can enter force next year.
The EU leaders will also be seeking to agree on how to share the costs of the battle against climate change.
Here too consensus may prove elusive, with less wealthy central and eastern European nations unwilling to give money for the developing world to fight against climate change.
In the corridors and in bilateral meetings, attention was expected to focus on candidates for EU president, with former British premier Tony Blair among the front-runners, along with Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.
While no decisions on the new top job are expected, the leaders could reveal their level of ambition for the post if Blair, a charismatic and savvy orator, is dropped for a lesser light.
Ahead of the meeting, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt refused to put the cart before the horse, recalling that all 27 nations must first ratify the Lisbon Treaty, which creates the EU top job, and that Prague had not yet done so.
"There are still obstacles to … ratification which lie in the Czech Republic," he told reporters. "We cannot solve it at a meeting at the European Council.
A group of Czech parliamentarians, many from the party Klaus founded, have launched an appeal against the treaty with the Czech Constitutional Court. The court is expected to hand down its verdict on November 3.
Klaus, meanwhile, demands that his country be given an opt-out of the EU’s rights charter, similar to the one given Britain and Poland, although Reinfeldt appears to have a compromise that avoids re-opening ratification elsewhere.
Reinfeldt reaffirmed his opposition to giving the Czech president such a present, amid warnings the move might create a danger precedent for the future.
He said that in telephone talks with Klaus, who for days refused to take Reinfeldt’s calls, "I made it absolutely clear that this was the wrong message at the wrong time."
Given the stalemate, Reinfeldt insisted it was best to focus on the main topic of climate change.
"This is a meeting on policy, not on names," he said. "We have not opened consultations on names and we will not open for informal discussions on names tonight either."
But opinions on the subject were not hard to find Thursday.
"We are going to discuss the profile of the candidate, who must be a great leader, who must show leadership, who must have a talent for mediation and who knows the European machine," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
Experts have called for a figure who would work tirelessly behind the scenes to try to unite the EU’s three institutions — the council representing the 27 member nations, the executive European Commission and the European parliament.
"Yes, there will be some glitz, glamour and globe-trotting," Andrew Duff, a constitutional expert and Liberal Democrat member of the EU parliament, wrote in a letter to the Financial Times. "But the council presidency will first and foremost require a behind-the-scenes consensus-builder."
Another candidate, Finland’s Paavo Lipponen, agreed that the job, with a mandate of up to five years, would be mostly about back-stage preparation.
The nominee should "prepare the agenda for European Council meetings," he told the FT, and be granted "time to listen to the member governments and deal with possible problems as a trouble-shooter".
On Wednesday, Latvia and its Baltic neighbour Lithuania announced that they would push former head of state Vaira Vike-Freiberga’s candidacy.
Meanwhile Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, another name mentioned for the EU president’s post, ruled himself out, while former Irish premier John Bruton joined the running.
Runners and riders for the top Brussels jobs
Here is a list of runners and riders linked to date with two new jobs at the head of the European Union to be created under the Lisbon Treaty:
1. President of the European Council
TONY BLAIR: The 56-year-old former British premier is the heavyweight, but undeclared, early favourite. He 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 opposition based on a series of British opt-outs from core EU policies, such as the euro, suggests it may prove impossible to form a consensus around his candidacy.
JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER: Europe’s longest-serving leader, Luxembourg’s prime minister has said he will take the post if asked. But he could easily become the immovable object that runs into Blair’s irresistible force, with doubts also expressed over a sluggish reaction to the global financial crisis.
JAN PETER BALKENENDE: The Dutch government chief said on Wednesday that he is not a candidate. Nevertheless, EU horse-trading form suggests he could yet become a "reluctant" compromise name.
PAAVO TAPIO LIPPONEN: The former Finnish premier is also a relative unknown on the global stage. But a column in the Financial Times on Thursday, setting out his views on the EU’s institutional future, has been interpreted as a declaration of interest.
VAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGA: Latvia’s "Iron Lady", the former president has a colourful life story and the support of Baltic neighbour Lithuania. At 71, diplomats rate her chances as slim even if the symbolic value of appointing a woman will tempt some.
MARY ROBINSON: The former Irish head of state has effectively ruled herself out of the running, saying she wants to focus on battling global warming.
2. High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy
The job of the foreign affairs supremo can only, by definition, be settled in tandem with the top job. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has ruled himself out, although comments backing Blair set out a strong vision of Europe’s future shape.
The other names mentioned in dispatches are Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, Austrian counterpart Ursula Plassnik and Finland’s EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn.
In both cases, the history of EU jobs jockeying has often thrown up a surprise winner emerging at the post. Portugal’s EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso being a case in point in 2004.
The two key posts are created under the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty has not yet been fully ratified but that could happen as early as next week as only the Czechs are yet to sign the text.