Jun 16th 2008

Choosing Mr. Europe

by Gilles Merritt

Giles Merritt is secretary-general of the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe and Editor of the policy journal Europe's World.

BRUSSELS - America's riveting presidential election campaign may be garnering all the headlines, but a leadership struggle is also underway in Europe. Right now, all eyes are on the undeclared frontrunners to become the first appointed president of the European Council.

Nobody - not even people closely involved in the process - really knows how the European Union's leaders are chosen. There are no formal rules, much less elections; somehow, names just surface in the media to become part of the EU's mysterious internal bargaining system.

In fact, there are five jobs up for grabs, so a complex but secretive discussion is being conducted between Europe's chancelleries over who might do what without disturbing the delicate balances between political families or between large and small states.

At the heart of this process is the even touchier issue of whether the people who will take charge of the EU's main institutions should be strong leaders. In principle, everyone wants heavy-hitters; in practice, many national leaders resist the idea of a more independent and assertive team in Brussels.

The dilemma is neatly summed-up by the two clear candidates for the top job as "Mr. Europe." On the one hand, there's the safe pair of hands personified by Jean-Claude Juncker, the veteran prime minister of tiny Luxembourg, who knows the ins and outs of the EU's political machinery and chairs the euro zone's ministerial set-up. He won't make waves, but he won't make headlines either.

Then there's Tony Blair. World famous but controversial, Blair is capable of rallying public opinion and giving the European project the high profile that the EU craves. But he's also liable to turn a 30-month ceremonial post as the EU's figurehead into one with much more political clout than its 27 national leaders might like.

The other four posts will probably be decided as part of a package deal, owing to the need to achieve some sort of balance. First, there's the question of whether the European Commission's current president, former Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso, should get another five-year term. His early promise to be the EU executive body's new broom has turned into a steady-as-she-goes captaincy, and there's the added question of whether his re-appointment might turn the job into a standard 10-year post for his successors, regardless of their abilities.

The choice for No. 3 job - the foreign policy supremo who will have extra resources and powers to build on the position created by Javier Solana - looks more straightforward. Solana, the soft- spoken Spaniard who was previously NATO's secretary-general, looks like the odds-on favorite to take the new job for a few months before handing it over to Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister and ex-premier who gained international stature in the Balkans in the 1990's.

But nothing is certain. If Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen were to succeed as a compromise candidate between Juncker and Blair, as is widely suggested, the presence of two center-right Scandinavians would present a problem. The remaining two posts, president of the European Parliament and the "Mr. Euro" job currently held by Juncker, will also have to contribute to overall balance and reflect the outcome of the European Parliament elections in mid-2009.

The parliament is a further wild card in this wholly undemocratic and unpredictable process. Under the Reform Treaty - the look-alike successor to the controversial European constitution that creates the post of EU president - the parliament's 785 members will also have their say. In years past, only governments could torpedo candidates for Europe's top jobs, but now the parliament also will be able to reject them. It's not at all clear which will have the greater power to decide the outcome.

This uncertainty is beginning to focus attention on the fundamental question of whether the EU can continue to choose its leaders in such a strange and furtive manner. When the Union was smaller and more modest, inter-governmental horse-trading seemed acceptable, not least because national politicians could downplay the importance of "Europe."

Today, with the EU eager to play a forceful role on the world stage, a move towards a more open system appears to be inevitable. The EU's interlocutors in Washington, Beijing, and elsewhere already make it plain that national leaders claiming to speak for Europe lack credibility, as do EU leaders who so evidently have no convincing political mandate.

Two clearly defined schools of thought are emerging. There are those who argue that these are sensitive and complicated issues beyond most voters' understanding, and that more democracy would result in either populism or embarrassingly widespread abstentions. Others believe the EU cannot continue being run along the same lines as in Beijing or even Pyongyang. It's an issue that will confront any new team chosen by the old methods.

Copyright: EUROPE'S WORLD.

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