The EU job contest dawns (don't wait up)

Will the new President be a Belgian, a Latvian, or even a Brit? Only one thing is certain: it won't be a snap decision
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The finals of the European Job Contest will take place in Brussels tonight, without the cheap glitter of the musical version but with the same sort of secret, national horse-trading and, most probably, the same kind of unmemorable winners.

EU heads of state or government will meet over dinner to choose the first ever President of the European Council and the first ever High Representative for foreign affairs. Confusion over the likely outcome was so great last night that the Swedish government, which will chair the meeting, made emergency plans for dinner to extend to breakfast, and even lunch, on Friday.

There appears to be a broad consensus that the two €300,000-a-year (£268,000) posts created by the Treaty of Lisbon should be awarded to competent and managerial candidates rather than charismatic figures who might try to impose their will on member governments. That does not rule out fierce haggling over who the winners should be – far from it.

Anxiety, approaching panic, was detectable in Brussels last night. EU leaders have to choose not only half-way credible candidates but to solve a Rubik's cube of competing demands. Centre-right must be balanced with the centre-left; men with women, north with south; east with west; and small countries with large.

The German ambassador to Belgium said that Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted the first Council presidency to be given to the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is committed to supporting the same candidate as the Germans. Mr Van Rompuy is therefore the front runner but he is likely to be opposed by other countries, including Britain.

His main rivals include the Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, the Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, and Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former Latvian president and the only female candidate.

The state of play has, if anything, become more muddled in the last week as new names have been thrown on to the table. Some governments privately criticise Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt for failing to seize control of the negotiations. He has made countless phone calls to EU colleagues in recent days but the outcome has been chaos, rather than consensus.

"There has been a lot of frustration at the lack of transparency of this whole process," said one EU diplomat. "There's been very little progress since the Czechs ratified the Lisbon Treaty [earlier this month]."

Other EU officials voiced frustration that Gordon Brown has refused to turn off the life support on the doomed candidacy of Tony Blair. This is, however, probably a tactical ploy by British Prime Minister.

With two or three plum portfolios also up for grabs in the new European Commission – set to take office in January – Mr Brown still hopes to emerge from the poker game with a senior British post dealing with financial affairs or competition. Holding on to the dog-eared Blair card as long as possible could strengthen his hand. According to one unconfirmed rumour in Brussels, Britain might pull a surprise and push for Mr Blair to become "foreign minister", rather than President.

Another senior diplomat said: "The only thing they've just about sorted out is the menu for the supper. The rest is wide open."

It has been agreed that only the 27 leaders will sit around the dining table, with foreign ministers and advisers banished to other rooms. If no progress is made over dinner, the leaders will break up into smaller groups after the coffee and digestifs.

There had appeared to be a consensus that the new presidency of the European Council (loosely, but wrongly, called the presidency of Europe) should go to a politician from the centre-right. The post of High Representative had been earmarked for the centre-left. Even this agreement may break down, however.

"There will be a lot more room for manoeuvre when push comes to shove," said another insider. "And I wouldn't be at all surprised if, for instance, the French pull a surprise name out of the hat on the night." One name circulating in Paris is that of the Socialist politician Elisabeth Guigou for the foreign affairs post.

She would be a female, "big country" candidate from the centre-left, balancing Mr Van Rompuy, as likely Council president, who is a centre-right male candidate from a small nation. What, however, of the demands of the south and the new member states in the east?