Leaders Move Closer to Selecting Top 2 EU Posts

Seven socialist prime ministers backed the European Union's trade commissioner to be its new foreign policy chief, moving a Thursday summit closer to breaking a stalemate over two freshly created top EU jobs.

Diplomats said Sweden, the summit's host, was nominating Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy for the job of EU president.

Both nominations still need the backing of all 27 EU leaders, who were huddled behind closed doors without advisers, to agree on the two posts.

The EU is trying to fill two roles meant to increase the EU's influence on global issues like climate change, terrorism and trade amid the rise of China, Brazil and India.

The union must decide before the EU's new reform treaty, which created the two new posts, comes into force in 12 days.

The EU reform treaty does not spell out what the EU president's job really is. The original idea was that a European president would give the EU a bigger profile on the world stage, one commensurate with its economic heft.

But power seems to have shifted toward the EU's new foreign minister, who will get a say over the bloc's annual $10.5 billion foreign aid budget and a new 5,000-strong EU diplomatic corps.

Diplomats said Reinfeldt was putting Van Rompuy forward for the president's job. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were still underway.

Before the summit, Van Rompuy met with Belgium's King Albert to discuss the possible selection of his successor as premier.

"I undergo all of this with mixed feelings," Van Rompuy told reporters.

Catherine Ashton won backing for the foreign policy job from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and left-leaning leaders from Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia, Portugal and Austria, Brown's spokesman Simon Lewis said.

Her success would all but kill ex-British leader Tony Blair's bid to be the bloc's first president, since both jobs are unlikely to go to Britons.

Lewis said it "became clear that the chances of a Blair presidency ... were declining," after Brown ditched his predecessor and backed Ashton, whom Brown only sent to Brussels last year.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and often-outspoken Premier Nicolas Sarkozy of France did not reveal a preference before the meeting. None of the names floated so far were from Germany or France, the traditional motors of the EU.

The EU leaders have been trying to strike the right balance between big countries and small, rich and poor, east and west, socialists and conservatives.

Britain had been pushing for a high-profile president. Others like France and Spain favored a low-profile person limited to chairing summits and greeting foreign dignitaries.

Smaller EU nations loathed the idea of being led by Blair, whose strong support for the Iraq war angered many Europeans. They also have expressed the desire a president from a country that uses the EU's common euro currency and participates in its passport-free travel zone. Britain has opted out of those EU projects.

Other possibilities for president include Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, Luxembourg Premier Jean-Claude Juncker and Estonian President Toomas Ilves.

Other names floated for the foreign policy post were Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Massimo d'Alema, an former Italian foreign minister whose communist past has raised concerns among some eastern EU members.

The EU has a long history of horse-trading for plum jobs. In 1994, leaders took 12 hours and a veto by Britain to pick an European Commission president. In 1998, it took another 12 hours to choose the first European Central Bank chief — and the EU ended up splitting the term between two people.