The Benelux rat pack scrabbling for presidency

Author: By Vanessa Mock in Brussels

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel will host her European counterparts for an
evening banquet to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall,
though her dinner guests will most likely be chewing over the nomination of
the next EU President. More precisely, they may well settle on a winner from
the ?Benelux trio?.

It is striking that the frontrunners for the new job of President of the
European Council, a post created by the Lisbon Treaty, should come from this
tiny, unobtrusive nook of Europe that once formed the core of the Low
Countries.

Even in Brussels, the shortlist has come as a bit of surprise and has set
people pondering about the Benelux-brand of je ne sais quoi which has set
Belgium?s Herman van Rompuy, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and
Luxembourg?s Jean Claude Juncker ahead of the race. For all the controversy
of his near defunct candidacy, Tony Blair radiates charisma and has
leadership qualities in buckets, unlike his would-be presidential rivals.

But it is now clear that the last thing that is wanted in Brussels is a big
personality who might tread on other big European toes like those of French
President Nicholas Sarkozy, or who might forget to an ear to the demands of
the EU?s smaller member states. Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson has blasted
this penchant for the lowest-common denominator as sell-out, a disastrous
choice ?typical of the risk-averse EU?.

But during his visit to Brussels last week, part of last-ditch attempts to
salvage Blair?s candidacy, Lord Mandelson also unwittingly put his finger on
why a more low-key, go-between might be more apt for the job. He described
the EU as a ?tap-dancer with 27 feet? whose president needed to help it
dance better. In other words, it should go to a mediator able to paper over
the deep fault-lines than run between the EU?s small and large, northern and
southern states.

Belgium?s Herman van Rompuy may be a virtual unknown outside his own country,
but within it is a seen as a supremo of the difficult dance, thanks to his
success to keeping the Flemish and the Walloons away from one another?s
throats. His predecessor Yves Leterme threw in the towel after tensions
between the country?s two language groups ran out of control and threatened
to split the country in two.

Mr van Rompuy has been around the political block for decades and knows how to
get the best out of both sides. Flemish-born, he also speaks flawless French
and his brokering skills, bonhomie and wry asides have become so
indispensable that the Belgian press has been warning of dire consequences
for the country?s future should van Rompuy be transferred from the
government to the EU Council, just one kilometre down the road.

It seemed unthinkable two months ago that the Belgian leader, who famously
also writes haiku poetry every day, should be the bookies? favourite but his
chances now look even better than those of Mr Balkenende.

The Dutch Premier has apparently lost brownie points with Mr Sarkozy on
account of his poor French and he is still dogged by the shadow of the Dutch
No vote in a referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, Lisbon?s
precursor, in 2005. Meanwhile, an earlier frontrunner, Jean-Claude Juncker
from Luxembourg, now seems to stand the slimmest chance.

Just as all the Benelux countries, miniscule Luxembourg is one the founding
member states of the EU and an important cog in the 27-strong union. But Mr
Juncker has apparently ruffled too many feathers during his chairmanship of
the Eurogroup and no longer inspires confidence.

A formal decision is not likely to be announced until a special EU summit in
Brussels, probably later this week, but as they emerge from their supper
later today, EU leaders may well let the cat out of the bag. But in true EU
tradition, even at this late stage, that bag could still hold a few
surprises, and an even more obscure name may be pulled out of it.

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