A president of Europe? Continent's unity is tested

PARIS – The European Union has battled long and hard for this moment: the imminent choice of its first president.

To get there, the EU strong-armed Irish voters, brushed aside hostile French and Dutch ballots, and pressured the Czech president into agreeing to a single leader to give Europe a strong voice on the world stage.

Yet after all that, EU leaders meeting Thursday may end up picking someone from a small country with little international power instead of a charismatic heavyweight to head this continental bloc of 27 nations, half a billion people and huge economic heft.

To pick a boss they can all live with, they must strike the right balance between big countries and small, east and west, socialists and conservatives, perhaps male and female. They must maneuver between proponents of a strong Europe and those who fear it — eurocentrics and euroskeptics, in the local parlance.

It's a diplomatic minefield.

The decision will help define Europe's future, the climax of a decade of agonized contortions and oft-thwarted efforts to make the EU about more than money and markets and common rules about what bananas Europeans can buy.

"The time has come to have a personality who will make an imprint ... a European mark" on world affairs from Iran's nuclear program to relations with Russia, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said last week.

"We should have weight in the world; we are 500 million people," he said. "We should participate in world events and not just finance them."

The early favorite was Britain's former prime minister, Tony Blair, but his candidacy has run into trouble. He cuts a big figure on the world stage — perhaps too big for the liking of other powerful figures such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now the talk among diplomats is that the EU president won't be that globally powerful after all and that the role will primarily be to liaise internally among EU governments. That would leave room for a low-profile president and a more eye-catching figure in the No. 2 slot of EU foreign minister, which carry the real international oomph.

There's talk of grudges: Will Britain block Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as punishment for Belgian objections to Blair? Will Poland nix Italy's Massimo d'Alema because of his communist past?

The path toward giving Europe a public face has been a tortured one. First, there was the EU constitution, which was meant to streamline decision-making and stipulated creating a president and a commissioner of defense and foreign affairs. But French and Dutch voters rejected the constitution in referendums in 2005, fearing a threat to their sovereignty.

Then a toned-down reform treaty was born. That made it past most governments — but then Irish voters said no.

They were talked into a second vote, said yes — and then the euroskeptic Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, resisted. Under heavy pressure, the Czechs also signed on last week.

There are no declared candidates and no public campaigns. President Barack Obama's future European counterpart will be determined not by elections but over a closed-door dinner.

Blair's most visible handicap is his enthusiasm for the Iraq war, which many Europeans opposed. He is especially resented among European leaders who bucked resistance at home to join the euro, the bloc's common currency, only for Britain to stay out of it.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is often mentioned for the job of foreign minister, but he insists he's not in the running.

Associated Press writers Robert Wielaard in Brussels and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam contributed to this report.