Juncker expected to be confirmed as European commission president

Endorsement of former Luxembourg PM will be followed by summit to fill other top EU jobs

Jean-Claude Juncker, the controversial choice to head the EU executive for the next five years, is expected to be confirmed as the next president of the European commission on Tuesday when he goes before the new European parliament hoping to secure an absolute majority of the 751 MEPs.

Vehemently opposed by David Cameron – who was joined only by Hungary in opposing Juncker's appointment 10 days ago, while the EU's other 26 national leaders supported the former Luxembourg prime minister – Juncker's likely endorsement will be followed by a special EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday at which government chiefs will seek to fill a clutch of top jobs all becoming vacant later this year.

The Brussels summit is certain to name a successor to Britain's Catherine Ashton as Europe's new foreign policy chief. But it may struggle to agree quickly on the other far-reaching changes, including who will form Juncker's new team at the European commission and who should succeed Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy as European council president chairing the summits and mediating between national EU capitals.

The Juncker confirmation will mark several firsts in the EU – the first time the national leader of a big member state such as Britain has been ignored in the choice of commission president and the first time that the parliament, following elections in May, has in effect dictated the nomination to Berlin, Paris, London and other EU capitals.

Given the magnitude of the parliament victory in forcing Juncker on to many reluctant member state governments, the chamber is unlikely to commit political suicide by denying him the 376 votes he needs.

Nonetheless, the Juncker entourage is playing up the prospects of a cliffhanger vote on Tuesday, claiming that he can be sure of a mere 380 votes – a too-close-to-call margin. Observers expect Juncker to cruise to the commission with more than 400 votes, representing a grand coalition in the parliament of Christian and social democrats, liberals and Greens. All of these sides include substantive minority dissidents but do not jeopardise the endorsement of the Luxembourg Christian democrat.

The bigger issues are these: the nature of the new commission, how many women Juncker is able to install in top jobs, and the other posts being vacated in October including the high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy, currently occupied by Ashton, and president of the European council, currently Van Rompuy.

The key criteria for the jobs are not meritocratic, instead revolving around a fragile political balance between right and left, male and female candidates, east and west Europeans, big countries and small countries.

The young Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, is energetically pushing his foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, to replace Ashton. The Italian is the frontrunner and ticks two boxes by being a woman and a social democrat. She has little foreign policy experience.

In one of the biggest issues facing Europe – policy towards Ukraine and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin – she and Italy are seen as being pro-Russian, raising hackles especially in eastern Europe, where Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, would also like the job. The two may cancel each other out, leaving the way free for Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria, a well-regarded humanitarian aid commissioner.

The choice will say much about Europe's foreign policy ambitions.

"Signs are that EU member states are again focusing more on a potential nominee's gender, political orientation and geographical origin than on qualifications for the job," said Michael Leigh, a former senior commission official, on Monday.

"EU leaders must set aside their habitual politicking and summon the courage to appoint an experienced senior foreign policy practitioner," he told the EurActiv website.

"The appointment of a convincing European figure as foreign policy chief will help to confound the image of a continent turned in on itself with declining influence in the world."

That imperative, however, may fall victim to the primacy in these matters of national horse-trading and the attempts to square several concentric circles.

The German and French nominees for the new commission are known – the incumbent energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, and Pierre Moscovici, France's former finance minister.

Cameron is expected to make his choice public on Tuesday, with up to six names circulating in Whitehall. The British want to secure an important economics portfolio in the new commission, such as the single market. Senior sources in Brussels say Cameron will not win a big portfolio unless he names "a big beast". Even better if the beast is female.

Given the uncertainty over Britain's future in the EU and the tough negotiations likely to consume much of the next three years, Cameron's choice of commissioner is potentially fateful.

Wednesday's summit may shelve naming a successor to Van Rompuy until after the summer break as that person does not need to go before parliamentary confirmation hearings in September.

The frontrunner is the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a social democrat. Paradoxically, she enjoys greater support on the right – from Cameron and Angela Merkel of Germany – than on the left where François Hollande, the president of France, only gave up blocking her last week as part of a deal that assumes his candidate, Moscovici, gets the plum commission post in charge of economic and monetary affairs.

Cameron and Merkel, say senior diplomats, have also been trying to coax Mark Rutte, the liberal Dutch prime minister, into replacing Van Rompuy. But he is said not to want to switch to Brussels. He is also seen as a Eurosceptic and lacking in diplomatic subtlety.


Ian Traynor in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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