European Council presidency: who are the contenders?
As EU leaders gather in Brussels we look at the contenders to be Herman Van Rompuy's successor
Clockwise from main: current president Herman Van Rompuy, Enda Kenny, Donald Tusk, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Andrus Ansip, Jyrki Katainen, Valdis Dombrovskis. PHOTOGRAPHS: Reuters, Bloomberg
Kenny’s name has been linked to the post for months, as it was to the presidency of the incoming European Commission before it went to former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker. However, close associates of the Taoiseach insist he has no interest in a move to Brussels.
The Taoiseach is in favour in Europe thanks to Ireland’s smooth bailout exit and the Government’s rigorous implementation of severe budget cuts. He would be acceptable to Germany and its Dutch and Finnish allies, but would bring none of their baggage to engagements with other crisis-struck countries such as Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.
Britain’s premier David Cameron was keen on Kenny, for he would be perceived as an asset in an EU referendum there. But Cameron’s support for Polish leader Donald Tusks suggests he reckons the Taoiseach is not for turning.
Prime minister of Poland
Tusk (57) is seen in certain quarters as the man to beat, although some countries are sceptical due to his weak command of English and lack of French. A further complication is that Poland is not in the euro zone, meaning he may prove unacceptable to any leaders who argue that membership is a prerequisite.
Still, German chancellor Angela Merkel encouraged Tusk to allow his name go forward. A pro-European economic liberal and a free-trade advocate, Tusk is a member of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) in which Merkel is the leading light.
Appointing Tusk would meet the demands of former eastern bloc countries for a top EU post to go a newer member state. Amid anxiety over Russia’s incursion in Ukraine, appointing Tusk would also send a strong signal of EU solidarity with member states in Russia’s neighbourhood.
However, his departure from Polish politics would leave a void in his Civic Platform party as it heads into difficult elections next year.
Former Latvia prime minister
Dombrovskis (43) is hardly a household name, but he is emerging a big challenger to Tusk. He brings similar credentials, including EPP membership. Latvia’s proximity to Russia is a further factor.
Like the Taoiseach, his execution of a stringent austerity programme is seen as a boon. Latvia became the 18th member of the euro last January so he does not have a currency problem. Critics said his exclusive focus was on budget cuts, but he said sound finances would renew confidence. He resigned last November after the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga killed more than 50 people.
His lack of charisma is a drawback, though he would not be the first EU leader deficient in that department. His successor Laimdota Straujuma says he has a one-in-four chance, but Brussels observers say his odds are better than that.
Helle Thorning- Schmidt
Prime minister of Denmark
Thorning-Schmidt (47), a former MEP, has strong European credentials and she was seen as an early favourite. That was on the basis that an EPP figure would fill the vacancy for EU foreign policy chief. That job is now likely to go to Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini, a socialist, so the EPP will take the presidency of the council. This is probably enough to cut socialist Thorning-Schmidt from the running, but there is an outside possibility that Mogherini’s campaign runs aground. Thorning-Schmidt denies any interest in the post.
Former Finnish premier
Katainen (42) has held the economic portfolio in the outgoing European Commission since the departure of Olli Rehn last May. An EPP stalwart and a stern advocate of fiscal rigour in government, Katainen has no shortage of credentials with Dr Merkel and her allies.
However, his nomination could prompt trouble in crisis-struck countries which have borne the brunt of recession and the incessant clamour for economic rectitude. He is still seen as dark horse, but observers do not think he will make it. Finland’s hardline alliance with Germany and the Netherlands in the response to the euro zone debt debacle remains a problem.
Former Estonia prime minister
Ansip (57) is still mentioned but his membership of the liberal group presents a problem as the EPP is determined to retain its grip on the post.
An apparent deal with the socialists to give the foreign policy post to Mogherini suggests the EPP is unlikely to drop its claim on Van Rompuy’s job. The case is made that Ansip’s appointment would bring liberal MEPs onside if Juncker’s team ran into trouble before the European Parliament votes on the incoming commission. Juncker’s allies argue that he is shrewd enough to ensure the composition of the new commission will pass muster.