EU Risks Limp Compromise on Top Jobs

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The disputes over candidates are another sign of how 2014 has failed to live up to the hopes of EU enthusiasts.

On Saturday, European Union leaders will meet in Brussels for the second time this summer to try to hammer out a package deal on the bloc’s leadership for the next five years.

Up for grabs are the post of EU foreign-policy chief and the replacement for Herman Van Rompuy, who steps down at the end of November as president of the European Council, the body that represents member states’ interests. The summit will likely see renewed haggling over who wins what position within the European Commission, the EU’s executive body.

Commission President-designate Jean-Claude Juncker will formally nominate his new team next month. EU member states and the European Parliament must then approve the picks, with the new commission due to take office Nov. 1.

EU enthusiasts had seen 2014 as a potential year of renewal, a moment for the bloc to turn its back on the economic crisis and re-engage voters through a more democratic, transparent process to pick new leaders, lawmakers and top officials.

Few believe it worked out that way. Voter support for anti-EU parties surged and turnout fell to a record low. Mr. Juncker emerged as the leading choice for commission president after his center-right party bloc won the most support in Parliament elections on May 25, but his candidacy was greeted with tepid enthusiasm among many member states. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron forced a vote among leaders on Mr. Juncker’s nomination, saying he was “the wrong person” for the job.

On July 16, EU leaders were too divided on whom to make their foreign-policy chief, kicking off weeks of summer dealing. The outcome risks being a limp compromise that will generate little public enthusiasm at a time of daunting challenges for the bloc—from the clash with Russia over Ukraine to continued economic fragility and the threat of a British exit later in the decade.

As ever in Brussels, there could be last-minute surprises on the EU posts before leaders sit down Saturday afternoon. Ukraine and Syria are also on the agenda, and European diplomats said there could be calls to ratchet up sanctions against Russia given the latest reports of Russian troops entering Ukraine.

There is a relatively clear Plan A that would offer a plausible mix of gender, geography and political party.

Mr. Juncker, a center-right former prime minister of Luxembourg and a fan of further EU integration won the commission job. So Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, Italy’s center-left, foreign minister, is a favored pick for the foreign-policy post, as the bloc has been under pressure to pick more female leaders.

The European Council presidency job, which emerged as a key post during the euro-zone debt crisis for bridging deep divisions over the bloc’s response, is harder to call. But there is a broad determination that the EU’s newer members in the east should get a top position.

As of Thursday, Donald Tusk, Poland’s center-right prime minister appeared to be the likeliest pick.

One potential hitch is that there is no obvious Plan B. In July, a group of mainly Eastern European leaders, concerned by Ms. Mogherini’s lack of foreign-policy experience and Italy’s cautious approach to the Ukraine crisis, blocked her candidacy. Since then, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has pressed her nomination hard and diplomats say Ms. Mogherini has sharpened her criticism of Moscow at EU gatherings.

If Ms. Mogherini is denied the post, Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, the EU’s humanitarian-aid chief, remains an outside bet for the foreign-policy job. But that would almost certainly oblige leaders to pick a council president from the center-left bloc. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who had the support of Mr. Cameron, remains a contender. Other names are still being bandied about.

These package deals are under fire from some in Brussels. Marietje Schaake, a lawmaker from the centrist ALDE group and a senior member of the Parliament’s foreign-policy committee, said the EU desperately needed an “ambitious, visionary” foreign-policy chief who can slip easily into the role. Instead, she said, the EU is again making a pick based on “the lowest common denominator” of member-state wishes.

There is an acknowledgment that Ms. Mogherini and Mr. Tusk have considerable political skills and that they could grow in the jobs. Both current foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton and Mr. Van Rompuy have seen their reputations enhanced since taking office. Baroness Ashton faced widespread criticism early in her tenure, while Mr. Van Rompuy was famously denounced by anti-EU lawmaker Nigel Farage as a little-known “damp squid.”

Ian Bond, foreign-policy director at the Center for European Reform in London, says there is an irony in the compromise emerging ahead of Saturday’s summit. While Mr. Renzi’s profile will be boosted if Ms. Mogherini gets the job, “there are no very obvious winners” among other powerful member states.

The U.K. may have made enemies in high places by opposing Mr. Juncker and being less than enthusiastic about Mr. Tusk initially. France is still pushing for a top economic post, but Berlin appears opposed and Paris has gained little elsewhere. Some Brussels insiders argue that Berlin’s huge influence will be reinforced if German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s close ally, Mr. Tusk, wins the council job.

Still, Mr. Bond says, Ms. Mogherini isn’t a “natural soul-mate” of the German chancellor “and she wasn’t a huge Juncker fan.”

 

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