31st Oct 2020

EU summit sees fresh discussion on top appointments

France, Germany, Spain and Austria stuck daggers into the Blair EU presidency bid in and around a summit in Brussels on Thursday (29 October), with Belgian, Dutch, Irish and Latvian names also on diplomats' lips.

Senior sources from the entourage of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the new EU president and the related post of EU foreign minister would have to strike "a balance" between the ambitions of Europe's centre-right and centre-left political families.

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  • Mr Zappatero (c) arrives at the summit - the Spanish premier's remarks were seen as a blow against Mr Blair (Photo: Swedish presidency)

Paris also called for a "rare bird" of an EU president who can both quietly build agreements in Brussels and act as the "face and voice" of Europe vis-a-vis foreign powers.

The comments on political balance, when seen in the context of the centre-left's clear preference for the EU foreign minister post, would rule out Tony Blair, a former British socialist prime minister, from gaining acceptance. The avian remark stands in contrast to his glitzy, celebrity profile.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero at a meeting of centre-left leaders in the EU capital earlier the same day made no bones about abandoning Mr Blair. "The criteria put forward by the European socialist party to express a preference for the high representative [for foreign relations] job sounds very reasonable to me," he said, Reuters reports.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Fayman was more brusque. "I do not find that the candidacy of Tony Blair is good because of what he characterises. He is connected with Bush and the war in Iraq," he said, in reference to former US president George W. Bush.

A centre-left shortlist of potential names for the EU foreign minister job mentioned British foreign minister David Miliband alongside five other rank outsiders, raising speculation that he is a shoe-in for the job.

Senior German delegates at the EU summit added fuel to the fire, saying that Berlin would favour an EU president from a smaller member state while heaping praise on Mr Miliband's talents.

Belgian jumps out of the hat

Belgian caretaker Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, Dutch leader Jan Peter Balkenende, Irishman John Bruton (the EU's ambassador to the US) and Latvian former head of state Vaira Vike-Freiberga also came up for discussion as candidates for the EU president job.

"It's never bad for a leader to be mentioned in this context, so I suppose he is not denying it. But he still has quite a job to do as prime minister," one EU diplomat said on Belgium's Mr Van Rompuy, who has his hands full trying to keep the Flemish-Walloon hybrid state in one piece.

Mr Balkenende is understood to have informally expressed an interest in the post, unlike Mr Bruton who wrote a quasi-formal letter of application to European ambassadors in Washington.

A French diplomat made fun of the Irishman's chances, however. "It's funny how from the long distance of Washington, he somehow sent through his application," the French source said. The Celtic Tiger economy which Mr Bruton helped build in his time as Irish leader had since "somewhat faded," the source added.

An aide to Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis told German press that Ms Vike-Freiberga's candidacy was "floated publicly" at the summit. The bid was given some extra weight by EU parliament president Jerzy Buzek in his summit speech, who called for the post to go to a woman for the sake of gender balance.

The German press agency, DPA, also cited "diplomatic sources" as saying that the Swedish EU presidency will hold an extraordinary summit on 12 or 19 November to clinch a deal on the top appointments.

But a Swedish diplomat denied that any extra meeting has already been tabled, saying the move would be premature before ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, which creates the two top jobs, is finally in the bag.

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