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Race for top EU jobs turns murkier before elections

Finland's Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen gives a speech at his National Coalition party's European Parliament election event in Helsinki Apri
Finland's Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen gives a speech at his National Coalition party's European Parliament election event in Helsinki Apri

By Paul Taylor

PARIS (Reuters) - The race for the European Union's top leadership jobs has turned murkier with news that Finland's prime minister is stepping down to seek a European role while France is touting its former finance minister as its nominee for a European Commission post.

That undermines the chances of two potential compromise candidates - both French - to head the executive body, in what is expected to be a tough fight between national governments and the European Parliament in June, with the added spice of a eurosceptic Britain following its own agenda.

The European Parliament, the EU's directly elected body, wants the next Commission president - the big prize - to be the leading candidate of the political group which wins the most votes in next month's European parliamentary election.

The floor leaders of the three biggest political parties said as much on Thursday in a joint statement, declaring: "The next elected Commission president will be the result of a transparent process, not the product of back-room deals."

But if no party wins a clear victory, and if Britain objects to the official frontrunners as too integrationist, the top job may go to a dark-horse third candidate, as it did in 2004, when Portugal's Jose Manuel Barroso was picked to break a deadlock.

One potential compromise candidate, center-right Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, 42, threw his hat in the ring on Saturday, though he does not plan to stand in May's election. Katainen said he would resign this summer after three years in office and was available for EU or international roles.

Two other frequently mentioned compromise figures are French: International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and former World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy. Both are regarded as competent, market-friendly technocrats with a track record of running complex bureaucracies.

But a candidate must be put forward by his or her home country and France can only name one Commission member.

So if Socialist outgoing Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has indeed been promised that slot, as he and government sources said when he lost his cabinet seat last week, that would appear to rule out either the center-right Lagarde, herself a former finance minister, or Lamy, a moderate Socialist seen by some on the French left as too supportive of globalization.

Even if Moscovici ends up in the planned role of full-time chairman of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers rather than in the Commission, it is highly unlikely that France could land two top jobs. But one seasoned EU diplomat said it was conceivable that other EU leaders could appeal to President Francois Hollande to change his nominee for Europe's sake.

Katainen, a highly regarded modernizing ex-finance minister who has held together an unwieldy left-right coalition, might also be a contender for the Eurogroup chair. But his country's skeptical hard line on bailouts in the euro zone crisis may make him unattractive to heavily indebted southern EU states.

CARVE-UP

Diplomats say British Prime Minister David Cameron has told some EU colleagues privately that neither of the current "Spitzenkandidaten" (frontrunners) to lead the Commission - German Social Democrat Martin Schulz and centre-right Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker - is acceptable to London.

Both are seen as old-fashioned federalists, anathema to Britons seeking to erase the EU's treaty aim of "ever closer union" and a liability when Cameron plans to renegotiate membership terms and put the result to a referendum in 2017.

Previous British prime ministers vetoed federalist Belgian favorites for the Commission presidency in 1994 and 2004.

Although London has no veto this time over a decision now subject to qualified majority voting, it might find enough allies to block either man, and anyway the EU does not normally outvote a big member state on a matter of national interest.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also voiced skepticism on Thursday about the Spitzenkandidat system.

The Commission presidency is just one of four or five top jobs that will be carved up among member states, respecting a delicate balance between north and south, east and west, large states and small ones, left, right and center, men and women.

While insisting he is running to head the Commission, Juncker, 59, has said he would be honored to serve as president of the European Council, succeeding Belgian Herman Van Rompuy as full-time chairman of EU summits, a key broker of compromises.

Juncker, among the first to advocate issuing joint euro zone bonds in 2008, sought to reassure Germans in a speech on Saturday that he would oppose common euro zone bonds, rapid EU enlargement or unchecked power for Brussels.

The other jobs in the mix, apart from the Commission presidency and Eurogroup chair, include the post of EU foreign policy chief, currently held by Britain's Catherine Ashton, and the presidency of the European Parliament.

Other potential contenders for various jobs include Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and former Italian premier Enrico Letta on the left and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on the right.

Each has drawbacks as well as advantages and none stands out as an overwhelming natural choice, but then nor did Barroso.

Thorning-Schmidt's country is not in the euro zone, and some may argue that Nordic social democrats already have one big job with the appointment last week of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as secretary-general of NATO.

Italy already has a major European position with Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank. That would appear to rule out Letta, 47, and his predecessor, Mario Monti, 71, who is still revered in Brussels from his time as a commissioner.

Grybauskaite, 58, a former EU budget commissioner who shares with the late Margaret Thatcher the nickname "Iron Lady", would tick the gender, east European and small country boxes.

But some might object that she was once a member of the Soviet Communist Party. She also appears to have taken herself out of the EU race by standing for a second term as president in May.

Kenny, 62, is admired for his leadership during Ireland's successful bailout program, but the former schoolteacher has no international experience or foreign languages.

Thorning-Schmidt, 47, gained overnight celebrity last year with a "selfie" picture taken with U.S. President Barack Obama and Britain's Cameron at a memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. But the economic reformer has struggled to keep her ruling coalition together and is not popular with voters.

A Brussels insider said she and Kenny also suffer among core EU countries from being perceived as "the British candidates".

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Alastair Macdonald)

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