The Search for An EU President: Europe's Politicians Vying for Top Job

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The list of discarded names continues to grow: Tony Blair, Jean-Claude Juncker, David Miliband. But the search for candidates to fill the European Union's top two posts continues -- and the smart money is on the least-known candidates, like Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy.

Potential EU president, Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy: "Alternates between colorless and gray." Zoom
REUTERS

Potential EU president, Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy: "Alternates between colorless and gray."

It must have been a peculiar breakfast last week, at which Jean-Claude Juncker, Herman van Rompuy and Jan Peter Balkenende -- the heads of government from Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, respectively -- shared a table. As collegial as the Benalux trio may be, the three are also competitors -- all eyeing the top European Union job. And yet, according to Balkenende, the subject of the EU presidency wasn't discussed at all.

But on Monday night in the Berlin Chancellery, such strategic silence was cast aside. Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted a gala dinner as part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A number of Merkel's EU counterparts were in attendance, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, current holder of the EU's soon-to-be-obsolete rotating presidency. It is difficult to imagine a more convenient setting to discuss the two largest-looming questions facing the EU: Who will be president and who will be EU foreign minister?

It is not yet clear exactly when the positions will be filled. The Czech Republic finally signed the Lisbon Treaty last week, the last of the 27 EU member-states to do so, clearing the way for the bloc's mini-political shake-up -- as provided for by the treaty -- to commence. Reinfeldt is soon to call a special summit at which the jobs will be filled, but he will not do so until consensus has been reached, according to a European official quoted by the Guardian.

Unreliable List

Much of the kibitzing has been conducted behind closed doors, but public speculation has been rampant. And now, many see Belgian Prime Minister van Rompuy as being the most likely presidential candidate -- bookmakers in London give him better odds than his Dutch competitor Balkenende. When it comes to the position of High Representative -- as the "foreign minister" position is known in EU lingo -- the smart bet is now on Italian politician Massimo D'Alema, now that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has reportedly pulled himself out of the running. D'Alema was his country's prime minister from 1998 to 2000 and foreign minister from 2006 to 2008.

Still, the list of names being bandied about remains unreliable. In filling posts in the past, the European Union has made a habit of pulling a surprise name out of the hat at the last possible moment. But it's difficult to imagine a greater surprise than van Rompuy. Even in Belgium, the 62-year-old Christian Democrat is seen as being past his political prime. He was thrust back onto the governmental stage 10 months ago as a compromise candidate to put an end to the political chaos threatening to tear Belgium apart.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. For months, many had assumed that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had an inside track on the EU job. Many saw him as the kind of prominent elder statesman who could command instant respect and actively pursue EU interests abroad. Soon, however, it became apparent that EU heads of government were not interested in competing for attention with a political star like Blair. Furthermore, his support of former US President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq made him anathema to many EU leaders. At the EU summit at the end of October, consensus built that the first EU president should come from one of the smaller member states.

Slim to None

Furthermore, Europe's socialists have elected to go after the position of EU foreign minister, leaving the president to the conservatives. Blair, as a Labour politician, hardly fits. Blair's chances to become EU president are now seen as slim to none.

Indeed, one of the qualities that most recommends van Rompuy is his yin to Blair's yang. "He alternates between colorless and gray," complains the German business daily Handelsblatt. The Economist jeers that the biggest international conflict van Rompuy has experienced is the altercation with Holland over the dredging of the Schelde estuary.

That, though, may be beside the point. Van Rompuy currently heads up a wobbly coalition government made up of five political parties in a Belgium that is hopelessly divided between the Francophones and the Flemish. In other words, he has the kind of patience necessary in cobbling together EU deals. Furthermore, he speaks German and English in addition to French and Flemish. Indeed, his resume isn't much different than that of his Dutch competitor Balkenende. The Dutch prime minister has long been seen as the favorite of Chancellor Merkel, but according to a recent report in the Belgian paper Le Soir, van Rompuy received an encouraging phone call from Merkel last week.

Badly Wants the Job

The race for the EU foreign minister post also remains intriguing. Conventional wisdom had it that, were Blair passed over for the position of president, then Miliband would be the favorite to represent the EU overseas. But Miliband himself has continually indicated that he has no interest in the position. According to the Austrian daily Standard, Miliband has told Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who heads up the Social Democrats in the European Parliament and who is leading the search for a center-left foreign minister candidate, that he no longer wants to be considered. Martin Schulz, Social Democrat floor leader, told the French news agency AFP that Miliband's "no" is "definitive."

Miliband has good reasons for turning down the post. According to the London Times, many in the Labour Party see a bright future ahead for Miliband and don't want to see him jump ship for Europe -- particularly with elections approaching in May. Miliband is also seen as a possible candidate to inherit the party leadership from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Still, Miliband himself provided grist for the EU rumors by holding a speech at a Labour Party convention in September in which he talked at length about European issues.

With Miliband out of the way, the path seems clear for D'Alema. Many now see him as a virtual shoe-in, despite concerns from Eastern European countries about his communist past. But in a recent interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Serra, he said his chances were "well below 50 percent" -- a clear indication in the world of European politics that he badly wants the job.

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