July 16, 2014 3:49 pm

Q&A: The confusing contest for the EU’s top jobs

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Radoslaw Sikorski©Adam Panczuk

Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister

After Tuesday’s official coronation of Jean-Claude Juncker as the next president of the European Commission, EU leaders at a summit Wednesday will move on to three less prominent – though no less contentious – top jobs in the EU firmament.

What jobs are being debated?
The most sought-after position is president of the European Council, who chairs all summits of EU prime ministers and represents the leaders both in Brussels and internationally on foreign policy and some EU issues. The job was created only five years ago and is currently held by Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian prime minister who was plucked from relative obscurity after more prominent candidates – most notably ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair – were vetoed.

The most hotly debated post is the EU’s foreign policy chief, another newly-created job that has been held by Britain’s Catherine Ashton since its inception in 2009. The High Representative, as it is formally known, heads the EU’s new foreign service, the European external action service, and has gradually gained a higher profile on the international stage. Lady Ashton has led the west’s talks on the Iranian nuclear programme, for instance, and has brokered peace deals with warring factions in the Balkans.

The least contentious job on offer is eurogroup president, who chairs regular meetings of eurozone finance ministers and rose to prominence during the eurozone crisis. The French have pushed for this job to become a permanent, Brussels-based position, but thus far it has been held by a national politician – first by Mr Juncker when he was Luxembourg prime minister and then by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister. It is unclear yet whether the French will win this argument, but the lack of debate on candidates is due to the widely-held belief that the position has been sewn up for Luis de Guindos, the Spanish finance minister.

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If these jobs are less important than European Commission president, why is it taking so long to agree nominations?
As with many EU issues, there are multiple regional and political issues at stake that make choices akin to the proverbial game of three-dimensional chess. Let’s start with the political: because Mr Juncker and Mr De Guindos are a members of Europe’s centre-right political grouping, known as the European Peoples’ party (EPP), the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) is seeking both the High Rep and Council jobs. They are backing Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini for the High Rep job, and Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a Social Democrat, is their most likely shot at the Council post.

But many EPP members, particularly Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, dispute the Socialists’ claim. The EPP did best in May’s European Parliament elections and has by far the most prime ministers around the table, leading many in the group to push for at least one of those jobs. At the Council, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny and former Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen are potential EPP candidates, while two EPP foreign ministers – Sweden’s Carl Bildt and Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski – are potential High Rep nominees. And then there are the centrist Liberals, who are also clamouring for a post. Former Belgian foreign minister Karel De Gucht is the Liberals’ man for High Rep; former Estonian prime minister Andrus Ansip is their candidate for Council. The package that is agreed must satisfy all three parties.

Regional considerations could make matters even more problematic. The so-called “new member states” of central and eastern Europe are insisting on at least one of the jobs after going without for their first 15 years in the EU, which could make Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, currently the EU’s top humanitarian relief official, an easy compromise candidate at High Rep. Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, has also been floated for Council. But there are still other considerations: some northern countries are not pleased that the south is claiming the eurogroup (Mr De Guindos) and the High Rep (Ms Mogherini) while already in possession of the European Central Bank (Italian Mario Draghi), for example.

Finally, there is gender. Many EU officials are already grumbling that the next European Commission appears to be short of women and are insisting at least 10 of 28 commissioners be female before the European Parliament will agree to confirm the nominations. This would give Ms Thorning-Schmidt, Ms Mogherini and Ms Georgieva added cache.

So is it likely they can agree on all three jobs at the summit?
Most think it’s unlikely. Mr Van Rompuy has told national delegations they have to decide at least on the High Rep job, since the occupant is also a member of the European Commission – and Mr Juncker is hoping to submit his full roster of 28 before the summer break. That is why there has been so much fighting over Ms Mogherini, with several central and eastern European countries objecting to Rome’s allegedly pro-Russian sympathies.

Those who have spoken to Mr Van Rompuy, who is in charge of brokering a deal, say he is pessimistic about getting agreement on any of the other jobs. But Ms Merkel would like the entire package agreed at the summit, so there’s a chance it will happen, since Ms Merkel usually gets her way.

Aren’t there other big jobs being debated?
Most prime ministers are far more focused on what portfolio their nominee to the European Commission will get, with five big economic jobs particularly coveted: economic affairs, energy, trade, competition and financial services. But the handing out of portfolios is – technically, at least – the exclusive purview of Mr Juncker, the incoming commission president, and not EU summiteers.

Still, Mr Juncker will be at the summit and many diplomats believe he would give leaders a hint of his leanings if it could sew up a deal on the other three jobs. Both France, which is expected to nominate former finance minister Pierre Moscovici, and the Netherlands, which is pushing Mr Dijsselbloem, covet the high-profile economic affairs portfolio, which was held by Finland’s Olli Rehn during the eurozone crisis. Giving a nod to Mr Moscovici could convince France to drop its objections to Ms Thorning-Schmidt; giving a nod to Mr Dijsselbloem could assuage northern countries worried about southern dominance of economic jobs.

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