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.

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

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

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.

A figurehead or real power player?

Only a few days ago, Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, was considered the leading contender. Ms. Joannin suggests that former Latvian Prime Minister Vaira Vike-Freiberga, much respected, would give a continent that is 52 percent female a different voice, and one from the east. But her chances are not seen as strong.

"Whether the new president will become a figurehead or a power player remains to be seen," says Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. "But since that is an open question, it makes for some excitement."

Top foreign policy chiefs include, along with Mr. Miliband, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Finnish Enlargement Minister Olie Rehn, and former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema.

Europe held its breath last month as Ireland voted "yes" on a Lisbon Treaty that is designed to make Europe more efficient by eliminating an ungainly 27 vote unanimity in decisions, and to give Europe a strong federal identity. The union, now seen mainly in economic terms, will be in a position to develop stronger integration in political, foreign policy, defense, and research matters.

Shortly after President Klaus in Prague reluctantly signed the Lisbon Treaty, which he argues will cede the Czech Republic's sovereignty to Brussels, the Swedish government in Stockholm, home to the current (and last) rotating EU president, issued a statement that, "All the EU member states have now ratified the text. The treaty will come into force on Dec. 1 and all the details must now be worked out."

"It is important not to raise false hopes," says Mr. Klau. "Taking a common foreign policy toward China, Russia, or Washington – that is not going to happen overnight. We are moving into a new house, some of which remains to be built. But there a legitimate hope the new set up will be able to deliver an effective European foreign policy, in time."


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