Leaders set to pick EU president
European Union leaders will gather in Brussels later to select their first full-time president and foreign affairs high representative. The heads of the 27 EU member nations are divided over which candidates to choose, and after-dinner negotiations are expected to last into the night.
Former UK prime minister Tony Blair had been an early favourite for president. But France and Germany look set to back a less prominent figure, the Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy.
The EU leaders will dine together on Thursday evening before beginning negotiations. They are widely expected to strive for a balance in the two posts, with one likely to be filled by a candidate from one of the bigger EU states, the other from a smaller country.
Similarly, the presidency is expected to go to a centre-right politician and the post of foreign affairs chief to the centre-left. Both jobs were created under the long-stalled Lisbon Treaty, which will come into force on 1 December, and both are meant to give the EU a stronger voice in the world.
The BBC’s Europe editor Gavin Hewitt said Mr Blair had been an early front runner for the presidency, but some leaders feared he would overshadow them and so the mood shifted in favour of a lower-profile name instead.
Despite Gordon Brown continuing to argue in favour of his predecessor, the camera-shy Mr van Rompuy, who is not well-known outside his own country, is now widely tipped, our correspondent added. The EU president will chair regular meetings of the European Council at which decisions are taken about the political position of the bloc.
However, correspondents say the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as the post is officially known, could have an even more powerful role. Whoever is chosen will have a seat as vice-president of the European Commission, as well as a budget worth billions of dollars and a new diplomatic service of up to 5,000 people.
Mr van Rompuy is seen as a consensus-builder and has been described as a pragmatic rather than charismatic figure. During his time as budget minister in Belgium’s Christian Democrat-led government, he took a tough stance on balancing the economic books, drastically reducing the country’s public debt.
Also in the frame to be president are Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. Mr Blair, meanwhile, has not put himself forward for the role, but has not ruled himself out either.
Currently working as Middle East envoy for the US, UN, EU and Russia, he has been described by Mr Brown as an “excellent candidate”. The UK’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband had been tipped as a possible contender for the job of EU foreign affairs chief, but he has said he is not available to be a candidate.
BBC correspondent Oana Lungescu says former Italian prime minister Massimo D’Alema has emerged as one of the favourites for the post. But his communist past makes him unpopular for many Eastern Europeans, our correspondent says – so several other candidates have been mentioned, including British EU trade commissioner Baroness Ashton, and another commissioner, Olli Rehn of Finland.