Cracks in EU effort to speak with one voice

He’s smart, he’s modest, he writes haiku about going bald. He looks like an absent-minded professor, and his public name recognition outside Belgium is virtually zero.

Is this the likely new president of Europe?

Bookies and insiders say so. As leaders of the European Union get ready to hobnob in Brussels tonight over cocktails and dinner, Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy is the odds-on favorite to emerge as their choice to be the EU’s first president, the person who will speak on behalf of the continent to the rest of the world.

It’s all part of the new and improved Europe envisioned by the Lisbon Treaty, a recently ratified pact intended to make the EU sleeker and give it a stronger voice in global affairs. With a new president to represent its 500 million people, the EU would finally become the unified, democratic, diplomatic heavyweight it was meant to be, supporters of the treaty said.


But the backroom dealing over the president’s job and a lineup of candidates few people have heard of -- one seems to be known mostly for looking like Harry Potter -- indicate exactly the opposite to many observers.

Far from strengthening the EU, critics say, the contentious process of choosing a president has merely spotlighted the alliance’s shortcomings and shown once again that, despite self-congratulatory pep rallies in Brussels, it still isn’t ready for prime time.

“The whole thing has descended into farce,” said Christopher Bickerton, an expert on European politics at Oxford University. “It’s made the European Union seem more of a joke than a reality.”

Informal discussions over the presidency have ground on for weeks, demonstrating anew the difficulty of getting 27 nations of disparate size, language, political history and economic might to agree on anything.

Before settling on a candidate, EU leaders couldn’t even decide what kind of a president they wanted. Should it be a star politician, someone of international stature who could, as the British put it, “stop traffic” in world capitals? Or more of a “Eurocrat,” a manager who excels at chairing meetings and getting others to play nice?

Heading into tonight’s meeting, the inclination seems to be toward the latter.

That has turned former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, once considered the front-runner for the job, into a long shot. Plenty of European leaders don’t relish the idea of being upstaged by the charismatic, limelight-loving Blair. Does, say, German Chancellor Angela Merkel really want to have to shout to be heard over the voice of a powerful EU president?

Beyond vanity, some also bristle at Britain’s historical resistance to the European project (it still has not embraced the euro as a single currency), as well as at Blair’s now widely criticized go-go economic policies and his crucial support for the war in Iraq.

His successor, Gordon Brown, is expected to keep on pressing for him at tonight’s summit, and in the world of political horse trading and all-night negotiating sessions, Blair could still stage an upset. But observers think it unlikely.

That leaves a speculative short list of names that probably only the most ardent students of European politics could identify. The finalists will probably be judged less on merit and more on criteria such as whether they come from a large or small EU country, their political leanings to the left or right, and their gender.

It’s “very Machiavellian,” Bickerton said. “It’s almost like when you choose a pope.”

Besides Van Rompuy of Belgium, the short list includes Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who resembles Harry Potter but who is far less famous; Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, which is even smaller than Belgium; and Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia and the only woman on the list, who has set up a group of supporters on Facebook (number as of this morning: 85).

Each boasts political accomplishments, some of them quite impressive. But their marquee value remains low outside their own countries.

Most of the speculation has centered on the unassuming Van Rompuy, 62, whose poetic oeuvre includes this melancholy haiku:

Hair blows in the wind

After years there is still wind

Sadly no more hair

His mastery of the formal rigors of Japanese poetry would seem to bode well for chairing meetings of the so-called European Council, composed of member states’ leaders, and enforcing parliamentary rules of order.

Supporters note that, despite holding the post for less than a year, as Belgium’s premier he has managed to bring peace to a government riven by squabbles between Flemish-speaking and Francophone factions.

But mediating between 27 nations is an even tougher task.

And when it comes to international affairs, will President Obama or Chinese President Hu Jintao rush to the phone to take a call from Van Rompuy? Conversely, will his really be the number that world leaders dial when, as Henry Kissinger famously put it, they want to “call Europe”?

“This is not Europe’s finest hour,” Denis MacShane, a former British minister for European affairs, told the Financial Times. “Europe will prove itself a global laughingstock if this process produces leaders of no weight at all.”

In addition to the presidency, the Lisbon Treaty creates a post of EU foreign minister. But there too the conjectured candidates are little known outside their home countries.

All this means that the dream of a strong new Europe, with a confident, forceful new leadership able to make the world sit up and take notice on matters of consequence, now looks like a dream deferred.