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The politics of filling the EU's top jobs

By Robin Oakley, CNN Political Contributor
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Filling EU's top jobs
  • EU President and "High Representative" to be Europe's Foreign Secretary to be chosen
  • President of EC will be first permanent chief of the European Council of Ministers
  • Geography, gender and ideology playing a part in selection of candidates from 27 EU states
  • Selection being conducted by heads of state and government, not by Europe's parliamentarians

London, England (CNN) -- Is the new "Mr. Europe" -- the President of the European Council -- to be Tony Blair, the perma-tanned political jet-setter with half a dozen jobs already or Herman van Rompuy, a poetry-writing Belgian who would scarcely be recognized in his local supermarket?

Could it be the 71-year-old "VVF", as Latvia's two-time President Vaira Vita-Freiberga is known, a battler who insists that those who call her a "token woman" should "wash their mouths out with soap". Maybe Europe's leaders will opt for Jan Peter Balkenende, who as Prime Minister of the Netherlands when its citizens were asked to back the new EU constitution creating the President's job couldn't even persuade them to do so?

Choosing the first permanent chief of the European Council of Ministers (up to now the post rotated on a six monthly basis round the EU nations) has become the ultimate carve-up. Whoever finishes up in the job should be presented to Europe's near 500 million citizens on a silver dish, with an orange stuffed in his or her mouth and surrounded by vegetables.

The twenty-seven countries which constitute the EU love to lecture the world about the values of transparency, openness and participatory democracy. They brag about how they have rescued eastern Europe from the sinister hand of crony-communism. But the man or woman who will become the face of Europe is being chosen in a series of backroom cabals worthy of a Soviet politburo at its worst. There are no hustings, no candidates' manifestoes. No public confirmation hearings are planned.

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Video: Tony Blair: EU President?

Instead of looking for a man or woman who will provide the leadership Europe needs, Prime Ministers and Presidents are conniving in the ultimate stitch-up. The people of Europe, even their Parliamentarians, are getting no say. Instead the selection both of a President and of the new "High Representative" who will be Europe's Foreign Secretary is being conducted as a secretive after-dinner parlor game for 27 heads of state and government. And, led by the current six-monther, Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, they are conducting the exercise on the basis of "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". Geography, gender and ideology all come into play.

Since the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU machinery, is headed by Jose Manuel Barroso, a center-right politician from the small state of Portugal, some leaders argue that at least one of the two key positions must go to a leftist from a bigger state. If the presidency goes to the Right then the High Representative must come from the Left,and vice versa. If one selection comes from a big EU state then the other must be from a small state.

And what about a woman? Of the 27 EU Commissioners, eight are of female gender. But the Commission President is a man and so is the President of the European Parliament. Which is where VVF gets her chance, or perhaps the Greek Anna Diamantopoulou as High Representative?

The deal is supposed to be concluded over dinner at the EU Summit Thursday. But most of the potential candidates aren't even publicly declared. Since many of them have other jobs, for example as Prime Minister of their own country like Mr Van Rompuy, there are obvious difficulties. Who wants to desert his own electors on Wednesday to insist he is the one to bear the torch for a wider Europe and then slink back on Friday, having failed to get the top job, and say "Sorry. Changed my mind. I really do want to go on being your PM after all"?

Tony Blair, whom British diplomats insist is still in the game, started as the favorite. He was, his backers argued (and at first they included President Sarkozy of France) just the sort of glamorous figure, recognized the world over, who would win attention for the EU and enable it to punch its weight in world affairs. As one Indian official said: "If the EU chooses as its worldwide representative the Prime Minister of Belgium or Luxembourg I am not sure our leaders will have the time to meet him".

But others were soon arguing that, as President Bush's leading ally over Iraq, Blair is a divisive figure in Europe. The one man who might have been able to take Britain into the European single currency, he had not even attempted to do so while he was Britain's Prime Minister.

Public backing from Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, a joke figure to much of Europe and another Bush ally, has not helped. Blair's chances have weakened and he lingers in the contest only as an outsider.

The fading of Blair's obvious but unannounced candidacy also has to do with another debate across Europe's capitals. None have agreed on what the job of Council President (which will run for two and a half years, renewable once) should really be. Do they want a glamour figure with his own agenda driving Europe or just an effective meeting chairman to prepare agendas, build consensus and take notes at four summits a year? If it is the latter, Blair won't want the job, but many European leaders are damned if they are having someone who might overshadow them. They want just a meeting chairman, the more anonymous the better -- cue the inoffensive Mr Van Rompuy or the ultimate small-nation Eurocrat like Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker.

It is said that the whole idea of the EU having a permanent President of the Council of Ministers was sparked years ago by an alleged complaint from Henry Kissinger in his time as Secretary of State: "Who do I call when I want to speak to Europe?". Europe has responded to that question with years of constitution-mongering, referendum reverses and treaty finagling which have bored its citizens to death.

Now the EU leaders are likely to end up not with the best candidate for the job -- should they ever manage to define that -- but the one who offends the least number of those making the choice. And the tragedy of that is that the new position is so poorly outlined by the Lisbon Treaty, which sets it up, that it will inevitably be defined by the first person to hold the office.

Even if EU leaders do agree on someone to fill the post at this week's meeting, we are likely to have only a partial answer to the Kissinger question. Many of them are still unsure whether they want the President or the High Representative to be Europe's face across the world. But whatever their choice, Britain's former Europe Minister Denis Macshane is surely right when he declares: "This is the end of the Eurocracy doing it like this, choosing one of their own in this manner. I don't think they'll be able to get away with this ever again".