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Europe

Future Face of European Union Plagued by Uncertainty

Often seen as remote and technocratic by its own citizens, the EU is set to have a face next year when it gets its first president. Who will be "Mr. Europe," and what will the job involve? There are no easy answers.

The European Parliament

Who will be the man or woman at the head of the EU table come next year?

"Who do I call, if I want to talk to Europe?" former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously asked in the 1970s, in a reference to the EU's notoriously unwieldy structures and faceless bureaucracy. Decades later, the European Union may finally be close to the answer.

The new reform treaty agreed upon by leaders from the bloc's 27 member countries last October in Lisbon to streamline decision-making and boost efficiency also created the post of an EU president. Yet, confusion over the presidency's role, limited power and another competing job might weaken EU efforts to inject clarity into its structures, experts say.

"The face of the EU"

The signing of the Lisbon Treaty in October 2007

The Lisbon Treaty is meant to simplify and stream-line the EU

According to the Lisbon Treaty, the new office-holder will be the standing president of the European Council, the body made up of each nation's leaders. He or she will be elected by serving heads of state for a two-and-a-half-year term, which will be renewable once. The president will prepare and chair all summits, ending the current system that sees nations taking six-month turns to preside over EU leaders' gatherings.

"The new president will be the face of the EU," said Sarah Seeger from the Munich-based Center for Applied Policy Research. "Someone who European citizens can identify with and third countries can turn to when they want to deal with the EU."

While the idea of a single point man for Brussels speaking on behalf of nearly half a billion citizens will spark a sigh of relief in capitals outside Europe, closer to home, the new president is expected to ease the pressures of running an EU which has nearly doubled in size in the last four years.

Some smaller states are left struggling with the huge task of managing the bloc's complex agenda, while big ones are sometimes accused of mixing national priorities with EU interests.

"The aim is to have a new president who will inject a new dynamic in big EU summits and improve the coherence of EU decision-making," said Hugo Brady of the Center for European Reform in London. "The fact that the person will have a long office term and will be divorced from national mandates will allow him or her to cobble together common EU positions."

Speaking with one voice

The inability to speak with a unified voice has hobbled the EU in the past, most notably during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the bloc witnessed a damaging split over whether to support the war. A strong representative figure at the helm of the EU will boost the bloc's diplomatic clout, some say.

Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac

The leaders of German and France led Europe's opposition to the Iraq war when it started

"Such a post would have made sense during the Iraq crisis," said Sebastian Kurpas of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. "It probably wouldn't have eliminated all the differences but you could have avoided the strong language and style that led to tensions back then."

Experts agree the new president needs to be a consensus-builder.

"The person has to be gifted but not too flashy and encourage and cajole EU leaders with the force of his or her personality and powers of persuasion to drive forward the EU's agenda," said Brady.

Competing posts

But it's not just the horserace character of who could fill the position that's raised worries in the EU. Even before the job has officially been created, there are concerns that its exact mandate remains vague and that it faces a rival in the form of yet another post formulated by the Lisbon Treaty -- that of a European foreign minister, which bolsters a foreign policy job currently held by Javier Solana.

Formally called the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the post will be endowed with significantly more power and resources than the foreign policy chief now possesses, since the new EU diplomatic chief will work both for national governments and the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.

"There is no doubt that there will be tensions there because the two posts will overlap in some areas," said Brady.

No decisions until at least 2009

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Many EU politicians and experts say Blair stands little to no chance for the post

Names of possible contenders for the post of EU president read like a "Who's Who" of EU politicians past and present.

Middle East peace envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Luxembourg Prime Minister and chairman of the finance ministers of the euro zone Jean-Claude Juncker and foreign policy chief Solana have all been named as potential EU frontmen.

First though, all the EU's 27 member states need to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, a stripped-down version of the EU constitution that was killed off by French and Dutch voters. Ratification is expected to be completed by the end of this year -- most countries will be rushing through the treaty in their respective parliaments rather than taking it to their voters -- and the new president will only be elected sometime in 2009.

The answer to Kissinger's question might well be a while in coming.

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