EU leaders failed to agree on the appointment of two senior EU jobs yesterday evening, potentially deferring the final decision until the end of August.
The extraordinary summit, which was convened specifically to consider the appointment of the next European Council president and foreign policy chief, ended without agreement, amid strong divisions about the suitability of Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini for the EU's top foreign policy post.
Earlier, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy delayed the start of the summit by two hours to try to gain consensus on the appointments, holding bilateral meetings with EU leaders including Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
But as the summit began, strong opposition remained towards the 41-year old Italian foreign minister, particularly from eastern European countries who are wary of Italy's perceived conciliatory stance towards Russia on the Ukraine crisis.
The decision not to reach agreement on the top EU jobs could potentially have knock-on effects on the assignment of key European Commission portfolios. All commissioners must be in place by the third week of September when they are due to appear before the European Parliament.
The political deadlock over the appointment of the EU’s top posts is potentially politically damaging, following an acrimonious dispute over the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president.
In an indication of the uphill battle faced by Italy in securing the key European post, Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka indicated ahead of the meeting his support for Polish foreign minister Radislow Sikorski as EU high representative. Asked about Ms Mogherini's candidacy, Lithuania's president Dalia Grybauskaite said she was not in favour of a "pro-Kremlin" candidate.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been in favour of securing agreement on the full package of EU jobs rather than solely the foreign affairs post this week, appeared to play down the possibility that both the EU Council and High Representative for foreign affairs would be filled. The meeting was simply "the first round of discussions", she declared.
The appointment of Ms Mogherini , Italy's foreign minister only since February, would colour the choice of European Council president. Should a socialist such as Ms Mogherini succeed Baroness Ashton, centre-right governments such as Germany would push for a candidate from the European People's Party (EPP) for European Council president. This has potential to push compromise candidates such as Enda Kenny and former Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen into the frame.
However, if Bulgarian commissioner and EPP member Kristalina Georgieva was appointed foreign chief this would increase the likelihood of Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s assuming the role of council president, though she reiterated yesterday that she was not a candidate.
Other possible candidates to succeed Herman Van Rompuy include Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, a close ally of Angela Merkel, who is understood to have been interested in the European Commission president job earlier this year. Mr Tusk is also believed to be acceptable to Britain.
While newly elected European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has stressed the importance of gender balance in the next European Commission, the inclusion of East European member states who joined after 2004 in the mix of top jobs is equally important.
Speaking before the summit yesterday, recently elected Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb stressed that a balance needed to be struck in the distribution of the key posts. "We need to find the right balance between political parties, between north and south, between male and female. A lot needs to be taken into account, but the most important thing is competence," he said.
Meanwhile, British prime minister David Cameron is to hold a breakfast meeting with the new commission chief today. Earlier this week Mr Cameron nominated the low-profile leader of the House of Lords, Jonathan Hill, as the next British commissioner.
Yesterday, European Parliament president Martin Schulz suggested that the parliament might reject Mr Hill given his "radically anti-European views". Mr Cameron is under pressure to secure a significant commission portfolio for Britain as it prepares to renegotiate its relationship with the EU ahead of a pledged referendum on membership by 2017.