The EU job contest dawns (don’t wait up)

Author: By John Lichfield and Vanessa Mock in Brussels

EU heads of state or government will meet over dinner to choose the first ever President of the European Council and the first ever High Representative for foreign affairs. Confusion over the likely outcome was so great last night that the Swedish government, which will chair the meeting, made emergency plans for dinner to extend to breakfast, and even lunch, on Friday.

There appears to be a broad consensus that the two ?300,000-a-year (£268,000) posts created by the Treaty of Lisbon should be awarded to competent and managerial candidates rather than charismatic figures who might try to impose their will on member governments. That does not rule out fierce haggling over who the winners should be ? far from it.

Anxiety, approaching panic, was detectable in Brussels last night. EU leaders have to choose not only half-way credible candidates but to solve a Rubik’s cube of competing demands. Centre-right must be balanced with the centre-left; men with women, north with south; east with west; and small countries with large.

The German ambassador to Belgium said that Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted the first Council presidency to be given to the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is committed to supporting the same candidate as the Germans. Mr Van Rompuy is therefore the front runner but he is likely to be opposed by other countries, including Britain.

His main rivals include the Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, the Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, and Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former Latvian president and the only female candidate.

The state of play has, if anything, become more muddled in the last week as new names have been thrown on to the table. Some governments privately criticise Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt for failing to seize control of the negotiations. He has made countless phone calls to EU colleagues in recent days but the outcome has been chaos, rather than consensus.

“There has been a lot of frustration at the lack of transparency of this whole process,” said one EU diplomat. “There’s been very little progress since the Czechs ratified the Lisbon Treaty [earlier this month].”

Other EU officials voiced frustration that Gordon Brown has refused to turn off the life support on the doomed candidacy of Tony Blair. This is, however, probably a tactical ploy by British Prime Minister.

With two or three plum portfolios also up for grabs in the new European Commission ? set to take office in January ? Mr Brown still hopes to emerge from the poker game with a senior British post dealing with financial affairs or competition. Holding on to the dog-eared Blair card as long as possible could strengthen his hand. According to one unconfirmed rumour in Brussels, Britain might pull a surprise and push for Mr Blair to become “foreign minister”, rather than President.

Another senior diplomat said: “The only thing they’ve just about sorted out is the menu for the supper. The rest is wide open.”

It has been agreed that only the 27 leaders will sit around the dining table, with foreign ministers and advisers banished to other rooms. If no progress is made over dinner, the leaders will break up into smaller groups after the coffee and digestifs.

There had appeared to be a consensus that the new presidency of the European Council (loosely, but wrongly, called the presidency of Europe) should go to a politician from the centre-right. The post of High Representative had been earmarked for the centre-left. Even this agreement may break down, however.

“There will be a lot more room for manoeuvre when push comes to shove,” said another insider. “And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, for instance, the French pull a surprise name out of the hat on the night.” One name circulating in Paris is that of the Socialist politician Elisabeth Guigou for the foreign affairs post.

She would be a female, “big country” candidate from the centre-left, balancing Mr Van Rompuy, as likely Council president, who is a centre-right male candidate from a small nation. What, however, of the demands of the south and the new member states in the east?

Candidates for the presidency

Herman van Rompuy

Odds: 4/7

Selling point: Belgian PM has held fractious country together ? good preparation for acting as glue for the 27 disparate EU states. Comes from a core, founding member and “small state”. The favourite.

Handicap: Lacks a wow factor in Washington and Beijing.

Jan Peter Balkenende

Odds: 5/1 Selling point: A good heavyweight compromise from another of the smaller EU members. The Dutch premier has a proven track record in building coalitions with almost anyone.

Handicap: Low on charisma. His Atlanticist leanings ? which might go down well in London ? seem to have left Paris and Berlin cold.

Tony Blair

Odds: 5/1

Selling point: The former British leader is a global name brandishing an unrivalled contacts book. As the first incumbent, the big hitter would turn the role into a big-hitting job.

Handicap: Taking Britain into the Iraq war and failing to bring the country into the euro are two strikes against him.

Jean-Claude Juncker

Odds: 7/1

Selling point: Dubbed “Mr Europe”, he has presided over the group of countries using the euro. As the longest-serving head of an EU government, he has also proved his staying power.

Handicap: During his long political career, Luxemburg’s outspoken PM has trodden on many toes.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Odds: 8/1

Selling point: The sole female candidate in a world of grey-suited men, she presided over Latvia’s entry into the European Union.

Handicap: At 71, the so-called “Iron Lady of the North” is the oldest of the mooted candidates ? by a decade.

Candidates for foreign ministry

Massimo d’Alema

Odds: 2/1

Selling point: Would bring Italy back to the front of the EU stage, and as a centre-left politician would counterbalance the expected centre-right president.

Handicap: His poor command of English has left some doubting how he would chair a meeting.

Miguel Moratinos

Odds: 5/1

Selling point: A career diplomat who once served as the EU’s envoy to Middle East.

Handicap: With a Portuguese head of the European Commission, this might be seen as one appointment too many for the Iberian peninsula.

Catherine Ashton

Odds: 6/1

Selling point: As a woman, she would go some way to reassure those who fear the Brussels hierarchy will not be representative of the continent.

Handicap: Despite her current position as EU Trade Commissioner, she has a relatively low profile.

Olli Rehn

Odds: 6/1

Selling point: The man in charge of EU enlargement is one of the few to declare interest in the job. He would satisfy calls for smaller nations to be represented.

Handicap: As a liberal, he doesn’t have the centre-left pedigree to offset a likely centre-right president.

Élisabeth Guigou

Odds: 7/1

Selling point: A former Europe minister for France, she could also help redress the gender imbalance.

Handicap: Depending on who gets the top job, there could be accusations of a northern Europe stitch-up.

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