The Big Question: What is the role of the EU President, and who are the leading candidates?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this question now?

A President of the European Council will be appointed next year. According to an opinion poll, most citizens in almost every large European Union country want the job to go to a political big-hitter – such as a Tony Blair or an Angela Merkel – rather than to someone relatively unknown. More surprisingly, 50 per cent of Britons agree with them, according to the survey for The Financial Times.

What would the job involve?

Technically speaking, not an enormous amount. The job has been widely described as a "President of Europe" but the real title is "President of the European Council". He or she would preside over the four annual EU summits, prepare their agendas and busy themselves in troubleshooting and solving disputes between the 27 member states. The President would have no executive role and no decision-making power. The day-to-day running of the EU would still be in the hands of the European Commission President.

Federalists hope and Euro-sceptics fear that the council President – a kind of super-speakership - will develop eventually into a true, directly-elected European presidency. Hence, the importance of the first appointment, which could be made towards the end of this year. Like the US presidency in 1789, the job will be defined, maybe forever, by the eminence of its first incumbent.

The former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, once asked: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" From next year, the answer could be the "President of the Council". If member governments choose a Merkel or a Blair, they will be saying to the world – and to themselves – that this is a job to reckon with. If they choose a relative unknown from a small member state, they will be saying: "This is (yet) another senior, European apparatchik."

Who does this job now?

No one. Under the existing EU treaties, nations take turn every six months to hold the presidency of both the European Council (the summits of heads of state or government) and the Council of Ministers (government meetings at ministerial level, from foreign affairs to fisheries). In the negotiations for the defunct European Constitution, the governments decided that this system would be unworkable with 27 or more member states. It would take 13-and-a-half years for each state to have its turn in the chair. Why not appoint a full-time council President? The idea was revived in the Reform Treaty, which is in the process of being ratified by member states.

It must be noted, however, that the President of the European Council would preside only over the four annual summits. The old system of rotating national presidencies would remain for the more frequent meetings of the Council of Ministers and for the permanent, technical negotiations between national delegations (embassies) to the EU. In future, three governments will share this burden at any one time. Meetings of foreign ministers will be chaired by the new "High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy", who will also be appointed later this year.

All of this is intended to "simplify" EU decision-making. Many of those who work within the Brussels machinery find it difficult to understand why having three types of council presidency, instead of one, amounts to a simplification. Who would a future Henry Kissinger call? The council President? The high representative? The EC President?

The obvious solution would be to appoint the same person as council President and EC President, with the High Representative as his or her sidekick and "foreign minister". There is nothing in the EU treaties, as amended by the reform treaty, to prevent this from happening. You would then have a genuine "President for Europe" with real scope and power. For this reason alone, it will not happen.

How will the President be chosen? And for how long?

There will be a vote among the 27 member governments. A qualified majority decision is possible. In other words, no one government has a veto. The President's term is two-and-a-half years (renewable). The council President is also supposed to be a kind of "recognisable face of Europe" for ordinary Europeans. However, the directly-elected European Parliament – the only democratic EU institution – will have no say in his or her appointment. The new EC President, also to be chosen by the end of next year, has to be approved by Euro MPs. He or she will, arguably, have more democratic legitimacy than the Council president who is supposed to give the EU new democratic legitimacy. This is known as "simplifying and streamlining the EU".

Does Tony Blair have a chance of election?

Probably not. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, strongly pushed the idea of a President Blair towards the end of last year. As one of the last rotating summit EU presidents for six months from July, M. Sarkozy will have some influence over the outcome. He now seems to have gone cool on the idea.

A queue of the European great and good has rejected the notion that Tony Blair could ever be the first EU Council President. Some argue that Mr Blair forfeited the right to be considered as a true European when he followed the US into the Iraq War and (allegedly) tried to split the EU along an Old Europe-New Europe fault line which proved eventually not to exist. Others say that no Briton is qualified to do the job so long as the UK remains a semi-detached member of the EU, outside the euro and outside the Schengen Agreement, which abolished passport controls between European states. Perhaps more to the point, a consensus seems to be building that the council presidency should go to the leader, or ex-leader, of a small member state, not a large one.

Who else is in the running?

There is a school of thought in Brussels that Chancellor Angela Merkel might welcome the opportunity to swap the wasps' nest of German politics for the hornets' nest of Brussels. If so, she would be an excellent choice. It does seem, however, that most national governments – and, crucially, national bureaucracies – are trying to shrink the importance of the job by appointing a relatively unknown first council president. The Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, has some fans but is disliked by the British and French. The Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt – out of a job from next week – would love to be asked. He is too federal for the British and too flaky for the French and Germans. The former Austrian chancellor, Wolfgang Schlüssel has a chance. So does the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. A strong emerging candidate is the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

On which horse are the smart euros going?

Watch Mr Rasmussen. The Danes are not too federal but legendarily honest and easy to get on with. The successful Danish economy is regarded, by some, as a model for the rest of Europe. But what would popular newspapers such as The Sun make of an EU President whose middle name is Fogh?

Should the President of the EU Council be a big-hitter?


* The whole point is to give the European Union more credibility, both at home and abroad.

* It will take a talented politician to knock 27 heads togther.

* A high-profile President of the European Council would pave the way for a President of Europe.


* Politicians from smaller EU states have fewer enemies and fewer private agendas.

* The job is much more limited than has sometimes been billed.

* A high-profile President would raise unnecessary fears of a "United States of Europe".