Thursday, November 19, 2009



November 19, 2009

Meeting to decide who will represent them on the global stage, the European Union’s 27 leaders were close to agreement Thursday on two low-key candidates with little international experience, after Britain finally abandoned its campaign to install Tony Blair in the bloc’s new presidential role.

Sweden, the country that holds the current European Union presidency and which is managing the negotiations, proposed Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian prime minister, for the presidential job, and Catherine Ashton, Britain’s European commission for trade, for the foreign policy post, according to several EU diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity.

That deal still needed agreement from the leaders, who were meeting in Brussels over dinner, but the early signs were supportive, said the diplomats, who were not authorized to speak about the ongoing negotiations.

Nevertheless, after an eight-year battle to rewrite its internal rules, the EU’s likely nomination of figures relatively unknown by the rest of the world seemed to highlight Europe’s problems instead of its readiness to take a more united and forceful place in world affairs.

In a sense, Europe seemed to be living down to expectations. Earlier, the foreign minister of Sweden warned against a “minimalist solution” that would reduce the union’s “opportunity to have a clear voice in the world.”

But faced with overwhelming opposition to Tony Blair’s candidacy for the presidency, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, finally bowed to the inevitable Thursday afternoon and dropped his backing for his predecessor.

Instead, with support from fellow center-left leaders, Mr. Brown pitched Ms. Ashton for the bloc’s new foreign policy job, although she had little foreign policy experience. That opened the way to a deal under which Europe’s center-right would take the presidential post. A fresh opportunity for European leadership appeared to be the great promise of the Lisbon Treaty, which created the jobs of president and foreign policy chief and which was approved only recently after years of political struggle. The idea had been to simplify the management of an enlarged European Union and to appoint senior European figures who could speak for the group.

But in their moves on Thursday, the national leaders seemed to be pulling away from naming a widely known figure in Europe’s presidential post who could take the limelight away from the national leaders of European powers like Germany and France.

The Belgian prime minister, an economist, has earned respect for calming down ethnic tensions in Belgium in his 11 months as prime minister. But his chances at the presidential post were threatened, ironically, by the leaders of other small countries who believe that they were being dictated to by Paris and Berlin.

Other potential contenders included the prime ministers of Holland and Luxembourg, Jan Peter Balkenende and Jean-Claude Juncker, and the former Latvian president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

Loukas Tsoukalis, president of ELIAMEP, the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, said that if expectations have been raised of a well-known president, “there is likely to be a disappointment.”

“Other than Tony Blair, there is not, at the moment, a big figure on the international stage, though that does not mean that we will end up with people who are not competent,” he said. “Whatever happens, there is going to be a bit of a let-down because two people will be appointed who in all probability will not be known publicly.”

Ahead of Thursday’s summit, there were signs that Sweden was seeking to downgrade the role of the new president by suggesting that the job should not include any role in foreign policy.

A Swedish document, circulated among diplomats and seen by the International Herald Tribune, gave a job description with no reference to a part of the Lisbon Treaty under which the president ensures “the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its Common Foreign and Security Policy” without prejudice to the role of the foreign policy chief.

In fact, under the treaty, the division of labor between the two new jobs is unclear and is likely to be determined by the new appointees.

The most prominent name mentioned previously to fill the foreign policy job, David Miliband of Britain, seemed to have chosen instead to work domestically to revive the fortunes of the Labour Party, widely expected to lose the next elections to the Conservatives.

It was similarly telling that France and Germany had, before Thursday’s meeting, indicated no real interest in filling either job, instead working to trade their influence for economic portfolios that could be more powerful the EU, what is still more of an economic union than a political one.

As European leaders worked through efforts to balance their choices by political affiliation, geography and gender, there were new concerns that the high representative might not speak English well enough to go on television and explain European policy clearly in what has become the Western world’s main language.

“A big part of that job is communicating to the world,” said Charles Grant, the director of the Center for European Reform. “And it has to be done on TV and in English.”

Mr. Grant said he had favored a prominent choice for president, like Mr. Blair, who could “stop traffic” in India and Beijing. “I’ve lost that argument,” he said. “But if we have a little man to chair the meetings and a big hitter for the high representative, that would be OK.”

Jean Quatremer predicted in the French newspaper Liberation that “The E.U. will not wake up, Friday morning, to the George Washington called for by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, but with a Rene Coty, the last president of the Fourth Republic . Or even worse. All strong personalities will be eliminated by a crossfire of vetoes. And the secrecy of the deal gives the worst image possible, that of petty arrangements between friends that will produce a mediocre compromise.”

Steven Erlanger reported from Paris.