David Cameron is backing Donald Tusk, the Polish Prime Minister, for the key job of “president of Europe” in the hope that he would help to deliver a new deal for Britain from the EU.
Mr Cameron is believed to have signalled his support for Mr Tusk when the two men spoke by telephone on Monday. Horse-trading over the top EU posts will resume at a summit of European leaders including Mr Cameron in Brussels on Saturday.
The post of President of the European Council - the 28 national leaders - is currently held by Herman Van Rompuy, whose term of office ends in November. It will be a crucial appointment as Mr Cameron tries to win concessions for the UK before the in/out referendum he has promised in 2017.
The Prime Minister wants to recommend an “in” vote but is under mounting pressure from Conservatives to declare that he is prepared to urge an “out” vote if he fails to make enough progress in the renegotiation.
Mr Cameron suffered a setback in June when the EU's other top post, President of the European Commission, was won by Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg Prime Minister, despite his high-profile opposition.
Mr Juncker is unlikely to grant Mr Cameron any special favours in the negotiations and so Britain is anxious to see a natural ally become President of the Council. Today Downing Street said the Prime Minister wanted to see the job go to someone open to his EU reform agenda. “Our overall objective will be making sure that we have a candidate that is willing to work with Britain to address our concerns in the coming years,” said his spokeswoman.
The backing for Mr Tusk suggests a rapprochement between London and Warsaw, after Polish ministers were furious about the Government's rhetoric on “benefit tourists” coming to Britain from Eastern Europe. Recordings leaked in June revealed that Radoslaw Sikorski, the Anglophile Polish Foreign Minister, said Mr Cameron had “fucked up” Britain's relations with the EU by resorting to “stupid propaganda” to appease his party's Eurosceptics.
Mr Tusk has not formally thrown his hat into the ring. He is a centre-right politician, like Mr Juncker, and there had been speculation that the Council post would go to a centre-left figure to ensure a balanced leadership.
However, EU leaders may instead decide on Saturday to give the foreign affairs post to Federica Mogherini, the Italian Foreign Minister, who is on the centre left. She would succeed the Labour peer Cathy Ashton, whose term of office ends this autumn.
Another possible candidate for the Council job is Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Social Democratic Prime Minister of Denmark, who is married to the son of the former Labour leader Lord Kinnock and who would be acceptable to Mr Cameron.
Tensions between Britain and Mr Juncker resurfaced as his aides suggested that Lord Hill, who has been nominated as Britain's next European Commission member, would not land the economic portfolio Mr Cameron wants to secure for him.
Mr Juncker criticised Britain and other EU members for not proposing enough women and said female candidates would have “a very good chance” of getting one of the top Commission posts.
This weekend's summit is unlikely to settle Lord Hill's role. Mr Juncker, who is expected to propose his list of Commissioners next month, believes the Council President and foreign affairs jobs must be settled first. “Mr Juncker has two or three scenarios in mind, but he cannot decide before this decision [on Baroness Ashton's successor] is taken,” said a source close to him.
With tensions high in Ukraine, countries including Poland and France are said to oppose the appointment of Ms Mogherini as foreign affairs chief due to her lack of experience on Russia and Italy's traditionally pro-Moscow position.
The 28 leaders will also discuss the crisis in Ukraine; the growth of Isis in Syria and Iraq and the situation in Gaza.
It is believed that only four women have been nominated to the 28-member Commission, even though the European Parliament hopes to see 10 female members. Mr Juncker said: “A Commission without a significant number of women is, in my view, neither legitimate nor credible… should there still not be a sufficient number of women, I will need to redress the balance through the portfolio allocation.”
Profile: Lord Hill of Oareford
Lord (Jonathan) Hill of Oareford was a surprise choice as Britain’s next member of the European Commission.
Although a member of the Cabinet as Leader of the House of Lords, he had a low public profile. Jean-Claude Juncker, the new European Commission President, is said to have Googled him to find out who he was.
Politicians who go to Brussels must swear allegiance to the Commission rather than their national government. But Lord Hill will play a key behind the scenes role in batting for Britain as David Cameron tries to win EU reforms ahead of his 2017 in/out referendum.
Lord Hill is not a Eurosceptic and is expected to be a pragmatist like his former boss Sir John Major, for whom he was Downing Street political secretary.
Number 10 raised eyebrows by citing Lord Hill’s business experience because it came in lobbying, a sensitive issue in Brussels. He worked for Lowe Bell Communications and later as a consultant at Bell Pottinger before founding the lobbying company Quiller Consultants. He still has a significant shareholding in Huntsworth, a public relations firm that bought Quiller. Its clients include the United Arab Emirates, HSBC, British Land and Telefonica.