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The EU's next step after the Lisbon treaty: Choose a president

The European Union is tossing around names for who could be the 'George Washington of Europe,' with Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy a top name. The EU is expected to decide by mid-November.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2009

Belgium's Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy addresses a news conference after speaking at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels October 13.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters



Europe has waited since 1992 to agree on a stronger federal identity – a president and a more efficient means to exercise its clout overseas.

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Now that Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the final holdout, signed a unity treaty Tuesday, a new European Union may formally be in place by Dec. 1.

The EU is not waiting around for its next move. In less than two weeks – Nov. 12 or 15, depending on scheduling – the Council of Europe is expected to decide on its first president, a "George Washington of Europe," and on a high representative for foreign affairs.

Those who desire a more united and potent Europe on the world stage see these two offices representing over time a stronger corporate face with power states like the US, China, and Russia in ways that current EU leaders can't achieve.

"Phone lines between chancelleries in Europe are pretty hot right now, everyone is looking for the right candidate," says Pascale Joannin, general manager of the Robert Schuman foundation in Paris. "We've never had a president of Europe before, and we need to find the right name for the person in charge of Europe."

Blair no longer a contender

Earlier talk of a President Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, has faded. Neither France nor Germany is said to back Mr. Blair, whose politics are center-left at a time when those key states have center-right governments. Yet the virtual loss of Blair has catapulted center-left British Foreign Minister David Miliband into a leading candidate role as Europe's high representative, or foreign minister. A center-right president will be balanced by a center-left foreign chief, sources say. Britain may get a top spot to help keep the ambiguously pro-Europe Britain more strongly in the new EU.

Checklist criteria for Europe's president, selected informally by the 27-nation council, include a leader neither strong nor weak, not politically extreme, who leans toward the right but is not rejected by the left, and who earns the acceptance of France and Germany.

Current front-runner, Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy, has risen suddenly; his name wasn't mentioned as recently as an Oct. 30 summit. Yet Agence France-Presse today says he enjoys a consensus among the 27 EU members; Madrid's El Pais says he is supported by German leader Angela Merkel and French leader Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. van Rompuy is known for keeping German, Dutch, and French lobbies in Belgium working together, against strong odds.