This should be a momentous occasion for Europe: this week, the European Union will select its first-ever President, a figure who could leave an indelible mark on Europe and live on in history and on coins just like George Washington in the U.S.
But one wouldn't know it on the streets of Paris, Athens or Helsinki. Europeans are by and large apathetic about the idea of having an E.U. President, in part, perhaps, because they aren't having a say in choosing who it is. Rather than open the contest up to a Europe-wide vote, E.U. leaders are instead making the decision behind closed doors amid a swirl of rumors, gossip and intrigue more befitting a papal conclave than the selection of the head of the largest group of democracies in the world.
If all goes according to plan, the E.U. could know who its President will be following a gathering of E.U. leaders on Thursday night in Brussels. (One almost expects a cloud of white smoke to rise from the Justus Lipsius building when a candidate is chosen.) But it won't be a straightforward process: the leaders are likely to haggle until the final moment on the decision of the President and the new E.U. Foreign Minister in an attempt to strike a balance in politics, gender and geography in the appointments quite possibly at the expense of qualities like talent and merit.
Already, strategies are unfolding. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have agreed to support a joint candidate for the presidency, although they haven't named any names yet. The two leaders presented their plan as a way to bolster the French-German axis in the E.U., which is considered key to further European integration. But the move angered Eastern European and Scandinavian countries, which see it as an attempt to impose a two-state directoire on the E.U. The Benelux countries, meanwhile, are throwing their support behind their own Prime Ministers Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium, Peter Balkenende of Holland and Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg.
For many, the behind-the-scenes negotiations run counter to the Lisbon Treaty, which is meant to make the E.U. a more efficient, transparent and democratic system. Former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, one of the few declared candidates for the presidency, said last week that the machinations over the top jobs could ultimately damage the new leaders' authority. "The E.U. should stop working like the former Soviet Union ... in darkness and behind closed doors," she said.
Indeed, the fact that there aren't many declared candidates for the jobs let alone debates also undermines the entire selection process. The three men who are seen as front runners for the presidency Van Rompuy, Balkenende and Juncker have all refused to confirm that they are even in the running. On Monday, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski sought to open the process up a sliver by suggesting that the front runners explain their visions for the future of the E.U. and submit to interviews with the heads of member countries at Thursday's meeting, before a selection was made.
But Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who is chairing the summit, countered that it was naive to think the E.U. could have an open contest or an official field of declared contenders. "It sends the signal to the people of your country, 'I'm on my way to another job. On Monday, I'm back again and I didn't get it, but I still love you,' " Reinfeldt said. "Sorry, anyone who has been in politics knows that that's unrealistic."
Yet others insist that declared candidacies are an integral part of any functioning democracy. "It happens all the time. If the mayor of a big city runs for the presidency of his country and doesn't get it, is his position undermined?" asks Piotr Kaczynski, an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels think tank. "Unfortunately, secrecy is a natural tendency of E.U. countries. It's hypocritical. If you are running for a position, you should have the courage to say so."
In time, the E.U. may well develop the structures for a more democratic process. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the new President will have a term of 2½ years. If the person selected by E.U. leaders on Thursday wants to run again, there will undoubtedly be pressure for him or her to present a platform of ideas. The new E.U. Foreign Minister must be approved by a vote of the European Parliament, and members may also take that opportunity to grill the candidate on his or her foreign policy agenda.
Of course, backroom dealmaking doesn't usually lead to swift decisions. E.U. officials are already dropping hints that the new leaders may not be selected at Thursday's dinner after all. That puff of white smoke may not come until Friday morning or even later. It's likely that few Europeans are waiting with bated breath.