BRUSSELS -- By rights, tonight should be a momentous occasion for Europe.
European leaders are gathering in Brussels for an extraordinary summit at which they will, for the first time, designate two leaders tasked with representing the 27-member bloc on the world stage, in a cohesive and lasting fashion.
The long-awaited decision comes just weeks after the sole EU holdout, the Czech Republic, overcame its long-standing reluctance to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, the document designed to streamline EU functions. The unified presidential and foreign-policy posts due to be decided are key Lisbon tenets.
But nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
The selection procedure for the two new top jobs -- in effect, a president and foreign minister -- has developed into a mammoth headache. There is an excess of candidates, with most member states backing their own politicians. And looking for an optimal pairing of officials has only muddied the waters further.
As EU leaders enter the summit tonight, there is no guarantee that the current front-runners -- the self-effacing Belgian prime minister, Herman van Rompuy, and the former Italian prime minister, Massimo D'Alema -- will emerge, respectively, as the first president of the European Council and EU high representative for foreign policy. Consensus Of 27
With 27 leaders, the logistics of negotiation alone have proven forbidding. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, presiding over the procedure as the head of the EU's current presidency, acknowledged a little personal frustration in comments in Stockholm on November 18.
Saying that he had been "talking for four full working days and some nights," Reinfeldt said about an EU of 27 member states. "Just to make a phone call.... I don't know if you've tried to do this, but try to get in contact with 26 heads of state and government within 24 hours -- and good luck!"
Consensus tricky in an EU of 27 member states.
Reinfeldt said he expected to complete two rounds of EU-wide consultations ahead of tonight's working meeting, but pointedly noted that EU leaders are "not of the same opinion" over the candidates. Privately, senior EU figures have said the number of names in the hat runs into double figures.
Getting EU leaders to reach consensus on just two of those names promises to be a huge challenge for Reinfeldt, who will first treat his colleagues to a dinner and then chair successive rounds of talks expected to last long into the night.
A closing press conference has been scheduled for 9:15 p.m., but many are expecting it will come only hours later -- if at all. Cecilia Malmstroem, Sweden's European affairs minister, was quoted this week as saying: "There is also the Friday. And Saturday and Sunday."
In theory, Reinfeldt can use a qualified majority vote to break a deadlock. But resorting to such an option is deeply unappealing, as it would weaken the standing of the appointees from the start.
The process exposes the tortuous workings of EU decision making at their most complex. Presidential Candidates
In picking the new EU president and foreign minister figures, a broadest possible equilibrium must be found between south and north, east and west, small and large member states, and the political left and right.
The gender balance is also becoming an issue. An increasing number of senior EU figures have in the past few days demanded that at least one of the two jobs go to a woman.
This has enabled Latvia's former president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga. to emerge as a dark horse for the president's job. Britain's current EU commissioner, Caroline Ashton, could squeeze ahead of other competitors in the race to become the EU foreign minister.
The male prime ministers of the three Benelux countries are the likeliest bets for the presidency, however. The countries are small and "sound," in EU terms, as founding members of the bloc. All three have right-wing leaders -- a tacit precondition that appears to have effectively ruled out Britain's Tony Blair.
Of the three, Belgium's Herman van Rompuy leads the field as the least controversial candidate and a man of proven consensus-building ability, having governed fractious Belgium, albeit for only six months.
Van Rompuy's selection, however, would be a blow for those hoping the new EU president can stand toe-to-toe with the U.S., Chinese, and Russian presidents. But creating such a singularly powerful post may in fact be difficult in a situation in which all EU member states will retain full veto rights in foreign, defense, direct tax, and budgetary policy -- the staples of nation-state sovereignty.
Reinfeldt, who as the facilitator in the process must remain neutral, acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining the sovereignty of 27 individual member states even as the bloc creates two positions to represent it as a unified whole.
He said that while it's "very important to say" that the European Union has "27 sovereign member states," it's also a "union defined by the member states in some areas where we feel that the political challenges of today must be met by cross-border strength, and also by political muscle," Reinfeldt said.
"Because that is the way of actually controlling climate issues, the financial crisis, the need for [external] trade arrangements. This is what we believe in Europe. We believe in sovereign states, but we believe in European integration at the same time."
Setting The Agenda
The new EU foreign minister will most probably hail from a large country and be a social democrat. The most popular candidate, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, has ruled himself out. Italy's Massimo D'Alema, second in line, could still find himself in trouble over his communist past, which raises hackles in eastern member states.
The new foreign-policy post will combine the resources and mandates of what, until now, have been two posts -- the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, and the external relations commissioner. Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who currently hold those positions, will leave their posts once a decision on the new foreign-policy chief is made.
Ferrero-Waldner said this week the new foreign minister -- who will hold the post for five years -- will have to overhaul the way the EU's foreign policy is communicated to the world.
"This will be an enormous task -- of steering the foreign policy, and the [EU's] foreign ministers council, of, indeed, [setting] the agenda with all the partner countries, and also build[ing] up a strong European diplomatic service," she said.
Ferrero-Waldner said that whoever is picked will leave a strong imprint on the future role of the foreign minister.
The same clearly applies for the president, who is elected for 2 1/2 years and can serve a maximum of two terms. The president and the foreign minister, in fact, will face an early turf war, as their current job descriptions overlap when it comes to representing the EU abroad.
Together or separately, they must also face down the president of the European Commission, currently Jose Manuel Barroso, who will be reluctant to relinquish his high profile at EU summits with outside countries.
And then there is the rotating six-month EU Presidency, which will carry on. Although the new president will chair future EU summits and the foreign minister future EU foreign ministers' meetings, the prime minister and foreign minister of the country holding the rotating presidency will also want a piece of the EU action at home and abroad.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt seemed to issue a storm warning in Brussels this week when asked who would chair the next scheduled EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels in December -- when the Lisbon Treaty, and its new EU positions, will already be official. Unless God decided otherwise, he quipped, it would still be him.