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President of precisely what?

Gavin Hewitt | 09:40 UK time, Monday, 19 October 2009

Tony Blair, file pic from October 2009Imagine drafting a controversial proposal. Among its key recommendations is a new job. With a mixture of persuasion and muscle the proposal is accepted. The job has an attractive title but it turns out there is little agreement over its precise role. So only after the signature pens have been put to paper do the real discussions begin as to how the job will be defined.

This is the curious case of the president of the European Council.

As European leaders expect the last country, the Czech Republic, to sign the Lisbon Treaty, attention turns to not just who will fill the post of president but what this person will actually do. The job spec, as laid out in the treaty, is spare on detail. The president of the council shall "chair it and drive forward its work". He/she "shall endeavour to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the EC".

It's all very bland, and on that basis you would not expect a stack of applications. It sounds like a post for a bureaucratic ringmaster. But then comes something a little more enticing and intriguing: "The president of the EC shall... ensure the external representation of the union on issues concerning its common and security policy."

That last sentence has been taken to define the post. The president will be the face of the European Union. He/she will raise its profile around the world. It used to be
said, apocryphally, that the president of the United States never knew who to call in Europe. Now he will. Europe would no longer be just a place "to fly over". It will have a president.

As the moment of decision draws closer it all becomes murkier. Firstly there are the big-leaguers like Sarkozy and Merkel. The French president is honest, suggesting that no one has decided what job it should be: "Should there be a strong and charismatic President or one who searches for consensus and organises the agenda?"

There is a big difference between the two. One will attract those, perhaps like Sarkozy himself, who can bestride the world stage. Angela Merkel seems less enthusiastic about having a big player out there. She inclines towards a "business manager" or a "referee". She is uncomfortable with a president who is a symbol of the EU.

And if the German chancellor is uncomfortable with a big figure, the little-leaguers are even more uneasy. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands argue that the president should be someone from a smaller state. They fear the large countries carving out the role among themselves. Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg is stating his claim to the job on the fact that he's a little-leaguer. His opponents, diplomatically, brief that the whole point of the job is to boost Europe's clout on the world stage.

Then there is the simple equation of power. If someone's power increases, then usually someone else loses out. The president will replace the rotating presidency of the EU, currently held by Sweden. For many leaders the rotating presidency was time in the limelight and much savoured. Member governments will continue to take turns chairing ministerial meetings, but it won't be the same - particularly if there is a strong president who gradually becomes "president of Europe".

So, perhaps incredibly, after years debating what became the Lisbon Treaty, Europe does not know whether it wants a "strong, charismatic" president who symbolises the continent or a low-profile manager. The other will probably not. The job spec matters; one will attract more ambitious names like Tony Blair, the other won't.

There is another twist to this story. The other big job to be filled is the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security. He/she will be the global trouble-shooter. There are some who want this post to have more power than the president. It could well be that the EU "foreign minister" will, in reality, be the face of the union on the international stage. For as the haggling begins in earnest an old truth re-emerges that no-one likes to see their own power and influence weakened.


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