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Which names in the EU hat?

Gavin Hewitt | 18:55 UK time, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt (lower right) with other EU leaders in Brussels, 29 Oct 09David Miliband has said again today that he is not available for the key post of European foreign affairs supremo. "When I said I was not a candidate, I meant it," he said. This time the denial looks final. He says he is committed to the Labour government. More about Mr Miliband later in this blog.

The executive search for the two top European jobs is proving difficult. There has been a first and inconclusive round of phone calls. There are more potential candidates than jobs. And just beneath the surface are fierce currents and rivalries. There could well be public disputes before the names are chosen at dinner in Brussels a week on Thursday.

To step back for a moment. The Lisbon Treaty had two big aims: to make the European Union run more efficiently and to give it a stronger voice on the world stage. The key to achieving those goals was two high-profile jobs. The President of the European Council and the bureaucratic-sounding High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

Narrowing down the field is the responsibility of the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. He had some face-to-face meetings with other leaders in Berlin on Monday, the others he has been calling. When he spoke to Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister put forward the name of Tony Blair - but not David Miliband.

The first difficulty is that some of these leaders are potential candidates. If they reveal their interest and don't get the job that will embarrass them at home.

The Swedish leader would like to arrive at the dinner next week with one name for both key jobs, but that is ambitious. There is still no agreement as to the kind of person they want as president. Do they want a bland consensus-builder or do they want someone
who can sit at the same table as the Chinese and American presidents?

That has not been settled. Neither should Tony Blair be ruled out. He was the clear front-runner but was regarded as damaged by his support for the invasion of Iraq and the fact that Britain was not a member of the euro. In the way that jobs are carved up in Brussels, the Socialist group of leaders indicated that they wanted someone of their political persuasion in the foreign minister's role, not the presidency.

But this is now a game about power. Despite the ambitions of the Lisbon Treaty many leaders don't want to be overshadowed by a strong president. That would count against Blair. The French and the Germans are said to have settled on the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy, as a compromise candidate. He is clearly the current favourite and if the dinner were held tonight he would most likely be chosen. However, the impression that Paris and Berlin are carving this up would almost certainly cause opposition elsewhere and could persuade others to come behind Tony Blair.

Even though the French and the Germans are regarded as the power-brokers what happens if Britain and Italy fight for Tony Blair? Who will break the deadlock? It opens the way for deals and horse-trading and the emergence of a candidate that may not yet be in the field.

There are other dimensions to this power struggle. The tension between the small and large states. The differences between old Europe and the newer Eastern and Central European states.

And then there is the issue of how these candidates are chosen. Should the decisions be taken through a series of phone calls? Should the new faces of the EU be settled by secret deal-making? The Poles have suggested job interviews. Others believe that potential candidates should make a public pitch, so people know what they stand for.

The Swedish prime minister is very keen to have a consensus candidate who has the full backing of all 27 leaders. He is desperate to avoid a row or reverting to majority voting.

As for the "foreign minister" job, there is the curious case of David Miliband. In a matter of 10 days he had moved to a position where he was the favourite for the job. Support for him came from left and right. For a man who insisted he did not want the job he gave every appearance of running for it.

He gave a series of interviews and a detailed speech on Europe's place in the world. He said what many other European leaders wanted to hear. And yet he has counted himself out. One official in Brussels said it looks like a case of "political flirting". There may be another calculation behind this round of activity. The fact that so many in Europe have been impressed with him is good for his candidacy come the moment when Gordon Brown is no longer leader of the Labour Party.

The next seven days will tell us a great deal about power and how decisions are taken in the new European Union.


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