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EU leaders wrangle over top jobs

Wednesday, July 16 14:54:47

European Union leaders today were seeking agreement on a package of top jobs for the bloc in hopes of signing them off at a summit later in the day, including the appointment of a new foreign policy chief.

The 28 leaders were also set to step up sanctions against Moscow over separatist violence in eastern Ukraine, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters.

They are looking to block European public loans worth nearly 3 billion euros ($4 billion) for new projects in Russia and target more individuals with asset freezes and visa bans.

Former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker has already been approved as president of the executive European Commission. Agreement on other Commission posts, as well as the president of the European Council of EU leaders, will shape Europe's response to economic stagnation, the crisis in Ukraine and Britain's wavering membership of the bloc.

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, 41, is front-runner for the foreign policy post, although Poland and Baltic states have misgivings about her inexperience and conciliatory behaviour to Russia since its annexation of Crimea in March.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, 47, has broad support to take the European Council job, chairing the bloc's regular summits, but France has reservations because her country is not a member of the euro zone. Outgoing President Herman Van Rompuy, from euro member a Belgium, played a central role in efforts to resolve the currency area's 2010-13 debt crisis.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Bulgaria's Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for development, are possible alternatives as foreign policy chief if Mogherini stumbles. Some west Europeans see Oxford-educated Sikorski, a respected strategic thinker, as too belligerent toward Moscow.

Van Rompuy, whose term expires at the end of November, put back the summit start to allow for more contacts to try to finalise the selection in a package deal.

Some EU diplomats said further talks may be necessary in the coming weeks over jobs that include an influential full-time chairman of euro zone finance ministers for five years, likely to go to conservative Spanish Finance Minister Luis De Guindos.

"I wouldn't expect a package deal," said one official with knowledge of the talks. "I think they will only agree on the high representative (foreign affairs), which is a crucial part of the puzzle. The aim is to finalise by the end of July."

The jobs selection is delicate given the wide disparity of views across the 28 countries in the European Union, an uneasy alliance spanning Britain, where some Eurosceptics want to quit the bloc, to Greece, which narrowly avoided leaving due to economic turmoil.

The other key posts at the Commission, which proposes and enforces laws for 500 million Europeans, include the commissioners in charge of economic affairs, competition, trade, the internal market and energy policy.

The centre-right Juncker, who won a broad investiture vote in the European Parliament on Tuesday, will attend the summit as president-elect before composing his team in early August from candidates put forward by national governments.

Politics as well as skills and experience will determine his picks, which have to balance gender, party affiliation, small and large countries, and north, south, east and western Europe.

Both Mogherini, strongly supported by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and Thorning-Schmidt, are women from the centre-left - factors which may play to their advantage.

But an EU official noted that both women were from western Europe and said the leaders were under pressure to offer one of the top jobs to an east European.

Juncker is seeking to put more women in top jobs to improve on the current Commission's count of nine. European Parliament President Martin Schulz warned on Tuesday that lawmakers might reject the entire team if there were too few women.

Britain may also face an uphill struggle to secure an important position for its nominee, little-known lawmaker Jonathan Hill, who backs Prime Minister David Cameron's strategy of trying to renegotiate London's EU membership terms before a promised 2017 referendum on whether to stay in the bloc.

Cameron, who unsuccessfully fought Juncker's appointment, named more hardline Eurosceptics to his cabinet in a reshuffle on Tuesday, including new foreign minister Philip Hammond. Hill appeared to have been dispatched to Brussels from the House of Lords largely to avoid a parliamentary by-election.

Britain may be able to claim a partial victory if Thorning-Schmidt, with good ties to Cameron, gets the European Council job. Other possible contenders are the former prime ministers of Baltic states Estonia and Latvia, Andrus Ansip and Valdis Dombrovskis, both from euro zone countries. (Reuters)

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