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Leaders of 27-nation bloc set to pick first president

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2009-11-19

At special summit in Brussels Thursday, EU leaders will finally select the 27-nation bloc’s first president as well as a foreign affairs chief following weeks of consultations.

REUTERS - Sweden will seek a last-minute compromise among the European Union's 27 member states on Thursday to appoint a president and foreign affairs chief, after weeks of informal talks failed to produce any front runners.

After almost two full rounds of consultations with the bloc's leaders, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has yet to find any candidates who have unanimous backing for the posts, which are intended to give the EU more clout on the world stage.

Reinfeldt, whose country holds the EU presidency, is now hoping EU heads of state and government will set aside their vested interests and agree on names at a summit in Brussels that is scheduled to last three hours but could go on much longer.

Failure to secure a consensus would highlight divisions in the bloc and could undermine the aim of creating the jobs -- to help the EU pull its weight in global affairs.

"I need, of course, the collaboration of my colleagues to try to get this through tomorrow night," Reinfeldt told reporters on Wednesday before a final round of telephone negotiations.

The jobs are being filled after ratification this month of the Lisbon reform treaty, which created the presidency role and gave the high representative for foreign affairs more power. It comes into force on Dec. 1 and should ease decision-making.

The treaty will create an EU diplomatic corps, the External Action Service, which will have embassies worldwide.

Reinfeldt said the appointments could come down to a vote if no consensus is reached.

"Do we get these new figures tomorrow night?" he asked at a news conference in Stockholm on Wednesday. "Well, I don't know. It might take a few hours, it might take all night."

Diplomats say Sweden has taken the precaution of ordering breakfast and lunch on Friday for those attending the summit, acknowledging it could run over time.

Risk of irrelevance

The difficulty for Sweden is securing a deal that satisfies all member states -- large and small, northern and southern European, those that are centre-right or centre-left -- while  also reflecting the wishes of the European Parliament.

One challenge will be negotiating with France and Germany -- which plan to decide together whom to back -- and with Britain, which is touting former Prime Minister Tony Blair for president and does not appear to want to compromise on that position.

In seeking balance, leaders are expected to opt for a centre-right president and a centre-left foreign affairs chief.

At least six names are being mentioned by diplomats for the president's job, and a similar number for the role of high representative.

Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who is barely known on the world stage, has emerged as a compromise candidate to be president. There is no firm favourite for the foreign affairs job although two former Italian prime ministers, Massimo D'Alema and Giuliano Amato, are frequently mentioned.

Despite calls for a woman to have one of the top jobs, no women are thought to be among the front-runners. Countries outside the EU are bemused by a process that EU diplomats themselves say is likely to result in the appointment of a president who is a compromise candidate, little known outside Europe and a lightweight in global terms.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the executive European Commission, has made clear how important the decisions are.

"Europe is facing stark choices in today's interdependent world. Either we work together to rise to the challenges. Or we condemn ourselves to irrelevance," he said in a policy document.

Date created : 2009-11-19

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