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'Europe's got talent', or how not to fill top EU jobs

By Paul Taylor

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - If "Europe's Got Talent" were a television show, it would have been taken off the screen years ago as a slow-motion contest rigged to reward mediocrity.

Few things make the European Union look less attractive to its citizens and the wider world than the secretive process of filling the top power positions in the 28-nation bloc every five years.

The winners are chosen in late-night horse-trading not so much for their experience, management skill or expertise but because no one feels strongly enough to veto them, they tick the right boxes and the judges are promised favors in return for voting for them.

The EU's 28 heads of state and government, some of whom may be candidates themselves, constitute the selection panel.

Their failure to reach a package deal last week on a new EU foreign policy chief, a president of the European Council to chair their summits and a permanent chairman of euro zone finance ministers looked messy but is no disaster.

They will try again in late August and may have some better qualified candidates.

But the first round highlighted some of the features of an opaque system that gives more weight to criteria such as party affiliation, gender balance, sharing between small and big countries, and a fair distribution of spoils among north, south, east and west, than to ideas or ability.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy observed with frustration after trying to craft a deal that it is hard to balance all those factors when there are only two or three posts in play and 28 nations required for a consensus.

The summit ended in deadlock because Poland and Baltic states wanted one of the top jobs for a candidate from the ex-communist states that have been members for a decade now.

SPARE THE FARE

Federica Mogherini, 41, Italy's foreign minister for just four months, appeared to be coasting towards the foreign policy job with strong backing from Socialist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi until the easterners raised objections, saying she lacked experience and was too soft on Russia in the Ukraine crisis.

Her key selling points, apart from youth, are that she is a woman from the center-left, balancing out European Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker, a center-right male.

Outspoken Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she would not vote for a "pro-Kremlin" candidate.

So frustrated was Renzi at failing to convert his recent European election victory into a top job for Italy that he suggested Van Rompuy should send leaders a text message in future if no deal was possible to spare them the air fare.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, 47, started as favorite to succeed Van Rompuy but France was uneasy that her country is not a member of the 18-nation euro zone, and the job involves chairing summits of the currency union.

In such opaque races, early front-runners often fall by the wayside and surprise contenders surface late in the game, leaving no time for cool-headed assessment of their suitability.

The selection in 2009 of the first EU high representative for foreign policy also to be a vice-president of the Commission and head a nascent European External Action Service was a caricature of those pitfalls.

The main EU leaders agreed that a Briton should get the job, hoping London would nominate then Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who was highly regarded by his peers.

But Miliband opted to stay home in hopes of leading the Labour Party, and the post went at the last minute to Catherine Ashton, then EU trade commissioner but with no foreign policy experience.

Avoiding an awkward parliamentary by-election was a key factor since she was a member of the House of Lords, Britain's unelected upper chamber.

As one disenchanted EU diplomat put it: "If the answer was Catherine Ashton, what was the question?"

Media-shy but status-conscious, Ashton struggled to establish her authority among Europe's big foreign ministers, to their evident delight. A weak successor would suit them fine.

While Ashton had some successes, brokering a first accord between Serbia and Kosovo and leading negotiations of an interim nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, critics say she has too often been missing in action in Europe's neighborhood.

NO MORE DELORS

No self-respecting company, civil service or charity would set about selecting a chairman, chief executive or finance director the way the EU does it.

There are few declared candidates and no job interviews or opportunities to set out a program. Contenders often have to deny any interest in the job they seek for fear of political humiliation back home if they are rejected.

Euroskeptic politicians cite backroom personnel deals as evidence of Europe's "democratic deficit" and the lack of connection between voters and EU institutions.

Yet possible alternatives such as directly electing the EU's main office-holders, or having member states pick a president with a free hand to compose a team of top talents, are unacceptable to the 28 national governments.

Ironically, the body meant to represent the common European interest, the European Commission, is the last bastion of sovereign equality - each state gets one commissioner.

It's hard to imagine Germany or France - let alone Britain - allowing the Commission president to pick, say, a distinguished economist critical of the government or a trade expert from an opposition party, however brilliant.

Given the sub-optimal appointment process, it's a wonder any of the EU's top executives have turned out to be great leaders.

Yet Jacques Delors, who was second choice in 1984 after leaders rejected another Frenchman seen as too federalist, was the most effective EU chief since the creation of the union, building the single market and laying the foundations for the euro single currency in his decade at the helm.

After Delors, some governments quietly swore never again to pick such a strong figure. His successors were selected partly for their willingness to defer to the big member states.

Van Rompuy himself was a late entrant into the race after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's bid to become the first European Council president had burned out.

Where the media-savvy Blair might have been a grandstanding foreign policy player, jetting around the globe, the low-profile Van Rompuy mostly stayed home, patiently forging compromises that held the euro zone together in the debt crisis.

Perhaps the selection system has some advantages after all.

(Editing by Mike Peacock)

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