The making of the president

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Series Details 24.01.08
Publication Date 24/01/2008
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The new president of the European Council might not take up office until the second half of 2009, depending on when and if ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon is completed, but the rumour mill is already churning with the names of possible candidates. Simon Taylor weighs up the possibilities.

Earlier this month Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, added some grist to the presidential rumour mill by persuading Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, supposedly a socialist, to speak at a rally on 12 January of France’s ruling centre-right UMP party.

Sarkozy said that the EU should choose someone of Blair’s standing rather than a lowest common denominator figure. So was Sarkozy really trying to boost Blair, or just trying to bait socialists into coming out against a Blair presidency? Back in October, Sarkozy described Blair as "the most European of the English" and "an intelligent choice". But at that time he also expressed support for Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister.

A Blair candidacy would be handicapped from the start. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of France in 1974-81, who arguably fathered the post of a full-time European Council president when he presided over the convention that drafted the EU’s ill-fated constitution, told French parliamentarians that the future president should come from a country which "respects all European commitments". The UK has opt-outs on the euro, the Schengen travel area and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which to some would debar a Briton from becoming the EU’s first full-time president.

  • A repeat of 2004?

Jean-Claude Juncker was much talked about as a possible president of the European Commission in 2004, but Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder could not persuade him to be a candidate. As a consummate political fixer in EU politics he would be well placed if the new Council president is supposed to spend his time brokering deals among member states.

Juncker could count on support from France and Germany, but the UK would probably consider him too unreconstructed a European federalist. Some of the newer member states would also oppose a Juncker presidency.

He is of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) political family and is strongly committed to Christian Social values, which at one level fit with Sarkozy’s call for a "protective" Europe to defend people against the threat of globalisation.

As the first president of the Eurogroup, he favours strengthening the external representation of the euro so that, for example, political representatives of the currency can pressure the Chinese on exchange-rate policy just as the US treasury secretary can do for the dollar.

But for Sarkozy’s tastes Juncker might prove to be too close to Germany, especially Chancellor Angela Merkel. He is more convinced of the need to defend the independence of the European Central Bank than Sarkozy, even if he has insisted on finance ministers’ right to speak on interest rate policy, suggesting a more political approach to monetary policy than the traditional tough German line.

  • In search of political balance

Although Sarkozy would love to have the Council presidency decided during the second-half of 2008, when he is chairing meetings of the European Council, the appointment could be delayed well into 2009. It would then become entangled with other appointments: the president of the European Commission from 2009-14, the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, the European Parliament’s presidents from 2009-2014.

It seems unlikely that the presidents of the Council and the Commission can be of the same political group. More likely is a balance, with one job going to the EPP and one to the socialists. So if José Manuel Barroso (of the EPP) was reappointed Commission president, that might prevent Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming Council president.

It seems likely that with the presidency of the Parliament the EPP-ED will take one half of the mandate and the socialists the other. The important point here is that one of the Parliament presidents is likely to come from a new member state - so permitting the older member states to keep the Council presidency for themselves. Jerzy Buzek, of Poland’s centre-right Civic Platform, would like the job.

  • Relative strengths

The relative strengths of the Council president and the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy - who will also be a vice-president of the European Commission - are still unclear. The distribution of tasks has still to be shared between the two.

Some governments are proposing that the president should be responsible for military and defence policy, leaving the high representative to deal with the diplomatic side of foreign policy, crisis management and chairing the external relations Council.

That would be a step backwards since the two new posts, Council president and ‘double-hatted’ high representative, were supposed to improve coherence in EU foreign policy, not preserve the current division between Community external relations policies, such as development aid, and intergovernmental policies, such as security and defence. But such a division would make it more difficult for a Council president to come from a non-NATO country: Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta or Sweden.

Again the political appointments might have to be balanced. So appointing a socialist to be president of the Council would improve the chances of candidates for the high representative job from the centre-right - Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, and Michel Barnier, France’s farm minister and former foreign minister.

If the Council president is merely a glorified maitre d’, hosting EU summits, without a strong influence on policy, then it could be that the party political balance will have to be struck between the Commission president and the high representative, making it possible for the Council and Commission presidents to be from the same political family.

  • A top drawer post

It is apparently unthinkable that the president of the Council would not be a prime minister or former prime minister. The job is in the gift of the European Council and the heads of state or government, and they will appoint one of their own, just as they have done in choosing the last three presidents of the European Commission.

Other names in the frame for Council president include Bertie Ahern, prime minister of Ireland, which had a successful EU presidency in 2004. His star is already fading as he is having domestic difficulties about corruption allegations. It might help that he is neither of the EPP group nor the socialists.

Wolfgang Schüssel, the former chancellor of Austria, is another possibility from the centre-right. Guy Verhofstadt is supposed to give up the prime ministership of Belgium in March and would dearly love a European job. But the post is unlikely to go to a liberal. Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president of Poland, is another name being mentioned on the left.

  • Job-swapping?

MEPs will have a say in the choice of Commission president, which could in turn affect the choice of Council president. The EPP-ED expects to be the largest group in the next legislature and therefore to insist that the Commission president comes from its ranks. But the socialist and liberal groups of MEPs might combine forces to win enough votes to secure the post for a compromise candidate.

There has been an assumption that José Manuel Barroso would stay on as president for a second term with the support of the EPP-ED. But if the Council president and the enhanced high representative carve up foreign policy between them, leaving little for the Commission president, it is possible that Barroso might bid for a change of address, swapping the Commission’s Berlaymont building for the Council’s Justus Lipsius headquarters on the other side of rue de la Loi.

The new president of the European Council might not take up office until the second half of 2009, depending on when and if ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon is completed, but the rumour mill is already churning with the names of possible candidates. Simon Taylor weighs up the possibilities.

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