That undermines the chances of two potential compromise candidates — both French — to head the executive body, in what is expected to
be a tough fight between national governments and the European
Parliament in June, with the added spice of a eurosceptic Britain
following its own agenda.
The European Parliament, the EU's directly elected body, wants the
next Commission president — the big prize — to be the leading
candidate of the political group which wins the most votes in next
month's European parliamentary election.
The floor leaders of the three biggest political parties said as
much on Thursday in a joint statement, declaring: "The next elected
Commission president will be the result of a transparent process,
not the product of back-room deals."
But if no party wins a clear victory, and if Britain objects to the
official frontrunners as too integrationist, the top job may go to a
dark-horse third candidate, as it did in 2004, when Portugal's Jose
Manuel Barroso was picked to break a deadlock.
One potential compromise candidate, center-right Finnish Prime
Minister Jyrki Katainen, 42, threw his hat in the ring on Saturday,
though he does not plan to stand in May's election. Katainen said he
would resign this summer after three years in office and was
available for EU or international roles.
Two other frequently mentioned compromise figures are French:
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and
former World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy. Both are regarded
as competent, market-friendly technocrats with a track record of
running complex bureaucracies.
But a candidate must be put forward by his or her home country and
France can only name one Commission member.
So if Socialist outgoing Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has
indeed been promised that slot, as he and government sources said
when he lost his cabinet seat last week, that would appear to rule
out either the center-right Lagarde, herself a former finance
minister, or Lamy, a moderate Socialist seen by some on the French
left as too supportive of globalization.
Even if Moscovici ends up in the planned role of full-time chairman
of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers rather than in the
Commission, it is highly unlikely that France could land two top
jobs. But one seasoned EU diplomat said it was conceivable that
other EU leaders could appeal to President Francois Hollande to
change his nominee for Europe's sake.
Katainen, a highly regarded modernizing ex-finance minister who has
held together an unwieldy left-right coalition, might also be a
contender for the Eurogroup chair. But his country's skeptical hard
line on bailouts in the euro zone crisis may make him unattractive
to heavily indebted southern EU states.
Diplomats say British Prime Minister David Cameron has told some EU
colleagues privately that neither of the current "Spitzenkandidaten"
(frontrunners) to lead the Commission — German Social Democrat
Martin Schulz and centre-right Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker — is
acceptable to London.
Both are seen as old-fashioned federalists, anathema to Britons
seeking to erase the EU's treaty aim of "ever closer union" and a
liability when Cameron plans to renegotiate membership terms and put
the result to a referendum in 2017.
Previous British prime ministers vetoed federalist Belgian favorites
for the Commission presidency in 1994 and 2004.
Although London has no veto this time over a decision now subject to
qualified majority voting, it might find enough allies to block
either man, and anyway the EU does not normally outvote a big member
state on a matter of national interest.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also voiced skepticism on Thursday
about the Spitzenkandidat system.
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The Commission presidency is just one of four or five top jobs that
will be carved up among member states, respecting a delicate balance
between north and south, east and west, large states and small ones,
left, right and center, men and women.
While insisting he is
running to head the Commission, Juncker, 59, has said he would be
honored to serve as president of the European Council, succeeding
Belgian Herman Van Rompuy as full-time chairman of EU summits, a key
broker of compromises.
Juncker, among the first to advocate issuing joint euro zone bonds
in 2008, sought to reassure Germans in a speech on Saturday that he
would oppose common euro zone bonds, rapid EU enlargement or
unchecked power for Brussels.
The other jobs in the mix, apart from the Commission presidency and
Eurogroup chair, include the post of EU foreign policy chief,
currently held by Britain's Catherine Ashton, and the presidency of
the European Parliament.
Other potential contenders for various jobs include Danish Prime
Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and former Italian premier Enrico
Letta on the left and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on the right.
Each has drawbacks as well as advantages and none stands out as an
overwhelming natural choice, but then nor did Barroso.
Thorning-Schmidt's country is not in the euro zone, and some may
argue that Nordic social democrats already have one big job with the
appointment last week of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens
Stoltenberg as secretary-general of NATO.
Italy already has a major European position with Mario Draghi at the
European Central Bank. That would appear to rule out Letta, 47, and
his predecessor, Mario Monti, 71, who is still revered in Brussels
from his time as a commissioner.
Grybauskaite, 58, a former EU budget commissioner who shares with
the late Margaret Thatcher the nickname "Iron Lady", would tick the
gender, east European and small country boxes.
But some might object that she was once a member of the Soviet
Communist Party. She also appears to have taken herself out of the
EU race by standing for a second term as president in May.
Kenny, 62, is admired for his leadership during Ireland's successful
bailout program, but the former schoolteacher has no international
experience or foreign languages.
Thorning-Schmidt, 47, gained overnight celebrity last year with a
"selfie" picture taken with U.S. President Barack Obama and
Britain's Cameron at a memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela in South
Africa. But the economic reformer has struggled to keep her ruling
coalition together and is not popular with voters.
A Brussels insider said she and Kenny also suffer among core EU
countries from being perceived as "the British candidates".
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels and Andrius Sytas in
Vilnius; editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Alastair Macdonald)
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