The Hunt for Mr. Europe

Is Henry Kissinger's famous question—"whom do I call when I want to talk to Europe?"—about to be answered? Next month the first serious talks among the European Union's 27 government leaders begin on who should become president of Europe. Other than the Vatican and a big Oxford college, no other European institution is so obsessed with who gets what job than the self-regarding Brussels elite. But the choice will define the EU for a generation to come. When Europe gets the right person in the right job—Jacques Delors, the French statesman who introduced the single market and invented social Europe, for example—the EU walks tall. Choose the wrong man, like Jacques Santer, the amiable but ineffective former prime minister of Luxembourg who was president of the Commission after Delors, and Europe begins to stall.

In the past, there was just a president of the Commission to choose. But now the EU has greater ambitions. Its new treaty, currently going through its last ratification hurdles after interminable wrangling, calls for the selection of a president of the European Council. The post mixes the mundane, like chairing the meetings of the 27 heads of government, with the task of representing Europe globally. EU leaders have yet to define which is more important—making sure the agenda is ready, the pencils sharpened and the chairs in place for the council meeting, or being a bully-pulpit president of Europe who walks through the door at the White House, the Kremlin and the Forbidden City in Beijing and makes clear that the voice of Europe is important and heard around the world.

If it is the latter, the president of Europe will be taking on an enormously difficult challenge, managing 27 national and sometimes competing visions of the world. After all, Berlin and Warsaw have not been able to agree on a common line on Russia for the past three centuries. The divisions between Europe's anti-Americans and the Euro-Atlanticists go back decades. Europe's foreign-policy priorities look very different from Helsinki than from Nicosia.

But the genius of European construction is that the seemingly intractable problems—merging a dozen currencies and central banks into the euro zone, or allowing workers to work across borders in a manner unthinkable under the North American Free Trade Agreement—slowly dissolve. A president of Europe with skill, patience, cunning and a sense of purpose and vision can make the new post into a powerful voice for Europe's mixture of soft and occasionally hard power on the world stage.

But where is the president to be found? A queue of prime ministers and ex-prime ministers is forming, hoping to begin the job in the summer of 2009. Top of the list is the chain-smoking bon viveur prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker. Although his country is home to more tax-avoiding German bank accounts than Lichtenstein, Juncker is popular with his fellow European conservative politicians, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Fluent in English, French and German, Juncker represents the last expression of the federal dream of a United States of Europe. But his federalist penchant for transferring power to Brussels at the expense of Europe's nation-states may produce a veto from the new generation of EU leaders who see Europe as a confederation of nations, with Brussels adding value but not seeking superiority over national governments and parliaments.

Another wanna-be president of Europe is Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the liberal but right-wing Danish prime minister who is likely to lose power at the next election. He is learning French, but his coalition with some strongly anti-immigrant politicians may reduce his appeal. The former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who authored the first efforts five years ago at drawing up a constitution, recently gave an interview about the EU presidency and described the qualities required in terms that, unsurprisingly, correspond to his own CV. There are other former government leaders who are eager to get back into the saddle, and in Brussels there is talk of the current European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, moving across to be president of Europe to allow a fellow conservative like Juncker or the recently deposed Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel to move to Brussels as Commission president.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France surprised many when he abruptly put Tony Blair's name into play six months ago. The former British prime minister is far from sure he wants the job if it is mainly to consist of a bureaucratic chairman's role. Apart from his moneymaking forays on the global speechmaking circuit, Blair is enjoying working in the Middle East and willingly spends weeks there trying to nudge sense into warring Palestinian factions. Having brought peace to Northern Ireland, a dispute that festered for a century or more, he has the confidence and vanity to think that the impossibility of peace in the Middle East is worth his time and energy.

Now the official line from Paris, at least from the French Foreign Ministry, where President Sarkozy has placed two socialists as foreign and Europe minister, is that France does not want Blair after all. But the former British leader may emerge as a compromise candidate, as other names start to fall away and EU leaders look for someone who can speak for the small nations of Europe, which find that their voices on foreign policy often get drowned out by the big foghorns of the British Foreign Office, France's Quai d'Orsay and Germany's Auswärtiges Amt.

Europe's leaders will also have to find someone to be EU foreign minister and make sure these new officials are acceptable to the European Parliament, which will be elected in June next year. Making all this come to life is a mammoth headache for Sarkozy, who takes command of Europe this July in one of the last six-month rotating presidencies under the existing system of EU governance. If he fails, and Europe ends up with top officials who cannot inspire or make the EU presence felt worldwide, then that will be a further blow to Sarkozy's rapidly tarnishing image in France and abroad. The EU has a chance to have someone who can speak for Europe and pick up the phone when America or India or Brazil calls. Yet Europe's record of choosing the right man for the right job is not the best. If EU leaders flunk this test, Europe's global status, and with that the EU's standing with European citizens, will decline still further.