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With Lisbon Secure, EU Focuses On Name Game

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, which will be just one of the EU's presidents now.

Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, which will be just one of the EU's presidents now.

BRUSSELS -- With the Czech President Vaclav Klaus's ink barely dry on the Lisbon Treaty, Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt, currently representing the rotating EU Presidency, is already working the phones consulting other EU leaders on the choice of a new, full-time bloc president and foreign minister.

Swedish diplomats say a one-day summit to confirm the appointments will be convened in Brussels between November 10-19.

Early favorites for the president's job, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, have already fallen by the wayside. "The EU is like the Vatican: he who walks into the conclave as a pope will walk out as a cardinal," Austria's "Kleine Zeitung Steiermark" astutely observed on November 4.

Instead, the Belgian prime minister, Herman van Rompuy, a virtual unknown in Europe who has presided over his own country for less than a year, has emerged as an unlikely front-runner.

EU officials say there appears to be an overwhelming consensus that the EU's first president -- who will, by force of precedent alone, have a decisive role in shaping the remit of the new office -- should be "a chairman, rather than a president," someone self-effacing and good at finding compromises.

Van Rompuy fits that bill, having quietly but quickly negotiated a truce in the debilitating standoff between Belgium's two language communities that threatened to pull the country in half.

Analyst Piotr Kaczynski, of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, says that current plans to opt for a relatively weak, small-country president and a stronger, large-country foreign minister fit well into the EU's institutional logic, where member-state sovereignty is checked by a supranational European Commission.

"This setup has big potential, because this means that we, on the one hand, are respecting the principle of communitarian approach to the institutions," Kaczynski says.

"Therefore, the fact that the European Council [which represents the member states] becomes an institution of the European Union does not have a detrimental impact on the position of the European Commission and [that of] the European Commission president. Having a smaller-country president at the European Council is a positive development in this respect."

Institutional Calculus

The formula of selecting the EU's top officials is extremely complex. It must strike a careful balance between the larger and smaller, old and new, and southern and northern member states. The appointees must be fluent in English, French, and increasingly, German.

Dutch newspapers reported earlier this week that their prime minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende, also in the running for the top job, had not impressed French President Nicolas Sarkozy with his French at the EU summit last week.

The choice must also reflect the distribution of power between Europe's political families.

This last requirement seems to have scuppered Blair's bid before it even got off the ground. The dominance of the center-right People's Party grouping rules out a candidate for the top job from Britain's Labour Party, even if it is only nominally socialist.

The Labour Party, is, however, the perfect launching pad for a potential bid by Foreign Secretary David Miliband for the EU's foreign minister's job -- although officially the title will read "High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy."

The job is earmarked for socialists, and Miliband's hailing from a large member state also fits in with the institutional logic described by analyst Kaczynski. Miliband -- or someone like him -- would add weight to the European Commission as it struggles for influence with member states.

Of course, all this is theory. A weak president and a foreign minister from a notoriously Euroskeptic member state could end up strengthening the hand of the member states.

The foreign minister will have a dual job description, also sitting in the European Commission as a vice president. Member states could use the foreign minister to gain control over the EU's new diplomatic arm, the External Action Service, in the process.

A turf war for control over the new service, created by the Lisbon Treaty, quietly started weeks ago, with the European Parliament trying to claim for itself the final say over its finances.

Too Many Chiefs

How all this will affect the EU's ability to project its power and policies in the global arena remains a matter of guesswork at present.

Nick Witney, an analyst with the London-based European Council for Foreign Relations, says that while the Lisbon Treaty provides the EU with "better machinery," it's up to the member states to put it into use.

"Machinery is only useful if you decide to use it, and that will be very much down to the individual EU member states to make that effort to struggle for common positions," Witney says.

Daniel Korski, also an analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations, warns in a report published on November 3 that "without greater coherence -- and an integrative system in place -- European countries, however big, will become bystanders in a G2 world run by China and the U.S."

At the end of the day, the problem with Lisbon could be that it provides for too much machinery. Apart from creating the positions of the new president and a beefed-up foreign minister's function, room will have to be made for the president of the European Commission.

The EU's rotating Presidency will be scaled down, but will not disappear, and its shuffle of prime ministers and foreign ministers will also lay claim to an ex officio role in representing the EU. Finally, there is the president of the European Parliament, although his institutional role within the EU remains highly limited.

This proliferation of presidents could easily turn into a domestic nightmare for the EU, especially if the incumbents should fail to get along. And instead of streamlining EU diplomacy, it could turn the bloc into an international laughingstock if it should find itself in a position where all presidents -- not to mention foreign ministers -- insist on attending summits with non-EU powers.