EU under fire over secrecy of presidency selection
(BRUSSELS) - Picking the first European Union president has been like the medieval behind-the-scenes machinations that go into naming a pope -- all that is missing is the black smoke.
Few politicians have publicly come forward as candidates to become the European Union's standard-bearer, while new names of hopefuls have emerged nearly every day from across the continent.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the 27-nation bloc will hold their own version of a cardinals' conclave as they seclude themselves Thursday at a working dinner to choose a president as well as a new foreign policy boss.
The secretive process has provided fodder for eurosceptics while exasperating supporters of the union who warn that it could sully the EU's image as a beacon of democracy.
"This is the end of the Eurocracy doing it like this, electing one of their own in this manner. I don't think they'll be able to get away with this ever again," Britain's former Europe minister Denis MacShane was quoted as saying in the Guardian newspaper.
"These secret negotiations are distressing," Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the deputy leader of the Greens at the European parliament, told the French daily Liberation.
"It is a caricature of democracy. We have the feeling that the 27, especially (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (French President) Nicolas Sarkozy are looking for people who won't overshadow them," he said.
The process was sure to be difficult from the start as the EU must find a middle ground between the left and the right, men and women, small and large countries, in a union of almost half a billion people.
Those vying for the job are keeping a low profile for fear of torpedoing their chances, such as Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who is among the favourites to win the job.
One of the few running openly for the position, former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, called on the EU to "stop working like the former Soviet Union" and urged candidates to come out of the shadows.
"It should be more transparent," she told The Times of London.
"The first step would be to stop hiding behind their fans and come out and say they would be ready to take the job. They should say they are a candidate, not just to 27 (the EU leaders) but to the whole of Europe so its citizens know what's going on."
Expressing a similar view, Poland had proposed that the candidates for the president and foreign policy jobs, which were created by the new Lisbon reform treaty, go through interviews.
But on Tuesday Warsaw dropped its demand for a hearing for the job of president, saying that it accepted the arguments against it by Sweden, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
The Polish government, however, still pushed for the candidates for foreign policy chief to make their case at a hearing.
Swedish officials have acknowledged the difficulty of the process.
"I would not say it is a complete mess, but there is no agreement still," Sweden's European Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstroem said this week.
But Stockholm has also defended the process, arguing that it would be hard to fathom a public campaign that a head of government would not be sure of winning.
"Can you imagine the prime minister of a country saying that he would like another position and then returning home on Monday to tell his citizens: 'I was not chosen, but I love you?' Sorry, but that's not realistic," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Sweden has scheduled a final press conference to cap Thursday's summit, but no black smoke.