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Page last updated at 11:38 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009
EU foreign head dismisses critics



The European Union hopes to decide on Thursday who will be the new president to chair EU summits and represent the bloc on the world stage. The way was cleared by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the Czech Republic. There is intense speculation about potential candidates.

HERMAN VAN ROMPUY - BELGIUM

The low-key Belgian Prime Minister, Herman van Rompuy, is tipped as a frontrunner for the role of president, according to diplomats.

Herman Van Rompuy

He is seen as a consensus-builder who would not upstage the leaders of the big powers who call the shots in Europe. He has been described as pragmatic rather than charismatic and is reported to be backed by France and Germany.

A Christian Democrat, he was appointed prime minister of Belgium in December 2008, having held the position of president of the lower house of parliament since July 2007.

During his time as budget minister in the Christian Democrat-led government, he took a tough stance on balancing the economic books, drastically reducing the country's public debt.

An avid blogger, the 62-year-old has also penned several books, mainly on social and political issues.

He is seen in linguistically divided Belgium as a unifying force, taking an even-handed approach to resolving conflicts between the Dutch and French-speaking communities - skills that would serve him well if he secured the new top job.


TONY BLAIR - UK

The former British prime minister has not put himself forward for the role - but nor has he done anything to suggest he is not interested.

Former British PM Tony Blair
In a speech in January, Mr Blair called for new ideas on Europe

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called him "an excellent candidate" and Foreign Secretary David Miliband is also urging Britain's EU partners to appoint him.

But the UK's opposition Conservative Party - widely expected to win a general election next spring - has made clear its absolute opposition to the idea of Mr Blair getting the job.

Mr Blair is dividing EU states. At the EU summit in late October there was a deafening silence about his possible candidacy - apart from the UK government's praise for him.

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi - a friend of the Blair family - has given him wholehearted backing. France's Nicolas Sarkozy started by signalling support for him, saying Europe needed a big-hitter, but also said it was a problem that Britain was outside the eurozone.

THE PRESIDENT'S ROLE
Chosen by 27 member states by qualified majority vote
Two-and-a-half-year term
Can be re-elected once
Chairs EU summits
Drives forward the work of EU Council of Ministers
Facilitates cohesion and consensus
Represents the EU on the world stage

The smaller countries, particularly Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, fear their interests would not be represented by a high-profile president.

And there are misgivings in many capitals about Mr Blair's role in backing the Iraq war.

Since leaving office as British PM, Tony Blair has worked as Middle East envoy for the US, UN, EU and Russia.

JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER - LUXEMBOURG

There are few European figures with credentials as impeccable as Luxembourg's prime minister.

He is the EU's longest-serving PM and head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers from eurozone member states. He has been at the heart of major EU negotiations since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker
Mr Juncker may win the support of smaller countries

Mr Juncker is also one of the very few to have declared an interest in the job of president.

"If I were called on, I would have no reason to refuse," he said.

While President Sarkozy might be happy with a centre-right candidate from Luxembourg, Gordon Brown would be unlikely to support him because of his federalist reputation. The newer member states might also be reluctant to be led by one of "old Europe's" senior statesmen.

But smaller states would see him as someone prepared to build consensus and listen to their views.

Given his extensive EU experience and status as Europe's longest-serving leader, he is seen as a frontrunner.

JAN-PETER BALKENENDE - THE NETHERLANDS

A third Benelux leader is seen to be a strong contender for the job - the Dutch prime minister.

Jan-Peter Balkenende
Mr Balkenende has boosted the Dutch presence on the world stage

Jan-Peter Balkenende has remained at the helm of four successive Dutch governments, and has boosted the role of the Netherlands on the world stage, recently negotiating invitations to G8 and G20 summits.

Mr Balkenende hails from the centre-right - which may give him appeal for the predominantly centre-right EU leaders. He is also a veteran of Dutch coalition politics, and that may appeal to the smaller countries that want their voices to be heard at the top table.

Yet he will always struggle to shake off the comment made by Karel De Gucht, a former Belgian foreign minister, who compared him to Harry Potter.

VAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGA - LATVIA

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, 71, the former president of Latvia, is being pushed by her government and that of neighbouring Lithuania.

Sweden's EU commissioner Margot Wallstrom has been urging EU leaders to appoint a woman.

Ms Vike-Freiberga was the first female president of Latvia - a former Soviet republic which joined the EU and Nato in 2004.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, file pic from 2007
Vaira Vike-Freiberga was Latvia's first female president

Dubbed the Iron Lady of Latvia, she served for eight years after being elected in 1999 and re-elected in 2003. She was a staunch supporter of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lithuania's Foreign Minister, Vygaudas Usackas, said she would be "a dynamic new face for Europe, with robust, strategic visions".

Although she was born in Riga, Ms Vike-Freiberga's family fled the Soviet occupation of Latvia after World War II, and she lived in Germany and Morocco before working as a psychology professor in Canada.

She returned from exile to Latvia in 1998.

WOLFGANG SCHUESSEL - AUSTRIA

The former chancellor of Austria is an outside bet, but as a conservative he could be well placed to win the support of EU leaders.

Former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel
Mr Schuessel is parliamentary leader of his conservative People's Party

Austria has never had a significant figure at the top of the Brussels hierarchy, despite becoming a member in 1995. Nevertheless, it is at the heart of Europe, a participant in all the EU's major initiatives such as the Schengen border-free accord and the euro.

As chancellor, Mr Schuessel was widely criticised for going into coalition government with the Freedom Party of nationalist leader Joerg Haider in 1999.

For a period, Austria was shunned by the rest of the EU. But Mr Schuessel was later praised for weakening the Freedom Party's influence, leading to its fall from grace and eventual internal division.

He may seem a dark horse in this presidential race, but could attract German support.

FELIPE GONZALEZ - SPAIN

A long shot for the job but with the necessary political weight and EU experience.

Spanish former PM Felipe Gonzalez
Mr Gonzalez is one of Europe's most respected political figures

Felipe Gonzalez spent 14 years as Spanish prime minister (1982-96) and took Spain into the EU.

He is still a popular figure in Spain, where his name has been linked with the EU presidency.

As a socialist, he would garner the support of the Spanish government if he chose to stand. But his politics might be a disadvantage in the eyes of most EU leaders.

JOHN BRUTON - IRELAND

The former Irish prime minister is currently the EU ambassador to Washington, but is finishing his five-year term and has thrown his hat into the ring for the EU presidency.

John Bruton
Mr Bruton has spent five years as the EU's representative in Washington

He headed up a three-party coalition government in Ireland between 1994 and 1997 at a crucial time for the Northern Ireland peace process.

His supporters also credit him with putting the Republic of Ireland on the road to prosperity that would last up to a decade.

His profile as the EU's man in Washington and his time served as the vice-president of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) give him significant name recognition in Brussels and could make him a strong outside bet.

TOOMAS HENDRIK ILVES - ESTONIA

The Estonian government put forward President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a centrist politician, as a contender for both the EU presidency and the new foreign affairs post this month.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, 15 Oct 09
President Ilves previously served as Estonian foreign minister

A former diplomat and journalist, he has served as Estonian president for three years. He played an important role in negotiating Estonia's EU accession, which took place in 2004.

He grew up in the US. That could play well with those - especially fellow East Europeans - who argue that the EU needs to forge closer ties to the US.

But older EU member states might consider him inexperienced in the workings of EU politics and lacking influence among Europe's heavyweights.



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