European Union leaders will pick the 28-nation bloc's foreign policy chief for the next five years at a summit Saturday, with Italy's top diplomat Federica Mogherini widely seen as the front-runner for the prestigious job.
The decision on incumbent Catherine Ashton's successor comes as the crisis at the EU's eastern border pitting Ukraine against Russia poses one of the biggest foreign policy challenges for the bloc in decades.
Ashton, whose term ends in October, has been a frequent interlocutor for U.S. secretaries of state and chairs the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.
The 41-year-old center-left politician Mogherini, in turn, has been Italy's foreign minister only since February, drawing criticism that she lacks experience.
"No one claims that Mogherini is the best person to deal with Russia," said Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institute think-tank. "Foreign policy is almost entirely absent from the discussion."
Mogherini's appointment would be part of a deal that includes dishing out other top EU jobs, with leaders seeking to agree on a package that reflects Europe's political landscape, geographical diversity and gender balance.
A first attempt to secure Mogherini's nomination in June failed amid resistance from eastern European leaders. But on Saturday, her boss, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, said "there is, I'd say, unanimous consensus" on Mogherini's being tapped.
"Our support for Ms. Mogherini is a given," concurred French President Francois Hollande as he arrived in Brussels.
The highly visible job as EU foreign policy chief entails flying across the world and hobnobbing with the great and powerful to deal with anything from the fighting in eastern Ukraine to the crises in the Middle East. However, the EU's top diplomat often has had little leeway because the bloc's member nations jealously guarded foreign policy as a national matter, leaving the foreign policy chief the role to hammer out compromise positions.
Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank in Brussels, said the new EU foreign policy chief "has neither the battalions nor the budget to single-handedly make foreign policy," but must do a better job than Ashton at coordinating the EU's different departments and mustering the courage to oppose powerful member states when necessary.
"The EU needs a unified foreign policy," he said.
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, and the EU's humanitarian aid commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria, are also candidates for the job, but several officials said they had outside chances at best.
The EU leaders will also pick a new European Council president to succeed Herman Van Rompuy in the role as EU summit chairman and broker of compromises among national leaders.
To reflect the bloc's geographical diversity, it is widely expected that the influential behind-the-scenes job will go to an Eastern European candidate like Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk or Former Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis. Denmark's leader, Helle Thorning Schmidt, is seen as having only an outside chance.
Mogherini and Tusk will make the race, said Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb as he arrived at the summit.
"I usually don't bet but I would put my money on those two," he said.
The third major appointment due is that of the Eurogroup president, who chairs the meetings of the 18-nation eurozone's finance ministers, who set important policies for the currency union.
Spain's conservative finance minister, Luis de Guindos, appears to be the front-runner to take over the job in January after securing this week the endorsement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Frances D'Emilio contributed from Rome.