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The Benelux rat pack scrabbling for presidency

As history is celebrated on the streets of Berlin today, behind the scenes, another, though more discreet, chapter in European history may also be penned in that same city.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel will host her European counterparts for an evening banquet to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, though her dinner guests will most likely be chewing over the nomination of the next EU President. More precisely, they may well settle on a winner from the ‘Benelux trio’.

It is striking that the frontrunners for the new job of President of the European Council, a post created by the Lisbon Treaty, should come from this tiny, unobtrusive nook of Europe that once formed the core of the Low Countries.

Even in Brussels, the shortlist has come as a bit of surprise and has set people pondering about the Benelux-brand of je ne sais quoi which has set Belgium’s Herman van Rompuy, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and Luxembourg’s Jean Claude Juncker ahead of the race. For all the controversy of his near defunct candidacy, Tony Blair radiates charisma and has leadership qualities in buckets, unlike his would-be presidential rivals.

But it is now clear that the last thing that is wanted in Brussels is a big personality who might tread on other big European toes like those of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, or who might forget to an ear to the demands of the EU’s smaller member states. Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson has blasted this penchant for the lowest-common denominator as sell-out, a disastrous choice “typical of the risk-averse EU”.

But during his visit to Brussels last week, part of last-ditch attempts to salvage Blair’s candidacy, Lord Mandelson also unwittingly put his finger on why a more low-key, go-between might be more apt for the job. He described the EU as a “tap-dancer with 27 feet” whose president needed to help it dance better. In other words, it should go to a mediator able to paper over the deep fault-lines than run between the EU’s small and large, northern and southern states.

Belgium’s Herman van Rompuy may be a virtual unknown outside his own country, but within it is a seen as a supremo of the difficult dance, thanks to his success to keeping the Flemish and the Walloons away from one another’s throats. His predecessor Yves Leterme threw in the towel after tensions between the country’s two language groups ran out of control and threatened to split the country in two.

Mr van Rompuy has been around the political block for decades and knows how to get the best out of both sides. Flemish-born, he also speaks flawless French and his brokering skills, bonhomie and wry asides have become so indispensable that the Belgian press has been warning of dire consequences for the country’s future should van Rompuy be transferred from the government to the EU Council, just one kilometre down the road.

It seemed unthinkable two months ago that the Belgian leader, who famously also writes haiku poetry every day, should be the bookies’ favourite but his chances now look even better than those of Mr Balkenende.

The Dutch Premier has apparently lost brownie points with Mr Sarkozy on account of his poor French and he is still dogged by the shadow of the Dutch No vote in a referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, Lisbon’s precursor, in 2005. Meanwhile, an earlier frontrunner, Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg, now seems to stand the slimmest chance.

Just as all the Benelux countries, miniscule Luxembourg is one the founding member states of the EU and an important cog in the 27-strong union. But Mr Juncker has apparently ruffled too many feathers during his chairmanship of the Eurogroup and no longer inspires confidence.

A formal decision is not likely to be announced until a special EU summit in Brussels, probably later this week, but as they emerge from their supper later today, EU leaders may well let the cat out of the bag. But in true EU tradition, even at this late stage, that bag could still hold a few surprises, and an even more obscure name may be pulled out of it.