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EU leaders haggle over top jobs

EU leaders get down to serious haggling over the bloc's top jobs Wednesday, with all eyes on who will head the high-profile foreign affairs arm in the face of deepening crises in Ukraine and the Middle East.

BRUSSELS: EU leaders get down to serious haggling over the bloc's top jobs Wednesday, with all eyes on who will head the high-profile foreign affairs arm in the face of deepening crises in Ukraine and the Middle East.

The summit was originally set to start at 1600 GMT but was put back to 1800 GMT, suggesting the preliminaries were not going well.

"We need more consultations," one diplomat said.

One post is already settled after the European Parliament confirmed veteran EU insider Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission on Tuesday, setting the stage for the next round of no-holds-barred horse trading.

Looming over the meeting is the deepening crisis in Ukraine which makes the choice of a successor to Britain's Catherine Ashton as head of the European External Action Service even more sensitive as Washington presses its EU allies to toughen sanctions against Moscow.

The European Union is divided as some members, such as Italy and Germany, have major economic ties with Russia which they fear could be harmed if relations break down completely.

Diplomats say that while the EU is mulling additional "Phase 2" sanctions -- asset freezes and visa bans -- it would stop short of "Phase 3" measures that target entire economic sectors.

New steps could include freezing programmes in Russia run by the EU's European Investment Bank and the London-based European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, one source said.

More names could also be added to the list of targeted sanctions such as visa bans and asset freezes.

"This is neither Phase 2 or Phase 3 but something different," the source said.

The United States made clear Tuesday it could go it alone if need be, with President Barack Obama calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss how best to coordinate their positions.

A draft summit statement on Ukraine, seen by AFP, says additional measures are needed because Russia has not taken the steps laid out at a June EU summit to de-escalate the crisis.

As EU High Representative, Ashton has played a major role in many of the top international issues, from the Middle East to the Iran nuclear talks and Ukraine.

Another woman, Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, has been tipped as favourite to replace her.

But critics say Mogherini is inexperienced and some states, notably the Baltic countries and Poland, feel Italy has been much too soft on Russia over Ukraine.

Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite was blunt Wednesday, demanding that the new high representative "represent all countries' interests equally."

"We now see that some aspirants very openly speak their pro-Kremlin positions. Of course, such a candidate is totally unacceptable for our group of countries," Grybauskaite said in a radio interview in Vilnius.

An alternative to Mogherini could be current EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria, who is close to the centre-right European People's Party, the biggest single group in the European Parliament to which Juncker also belongs.

The summit is also expected to review options for the European Council, which represents the bloc's 28 political leaders and sets overall policy direction.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a Social Democrat, enjoys wide support, including from Britain, to replace Belgium's discreet but effective Herman Van Rompuy at the European Council.

But Denmark is not a member of the eurozone, which may count against her.

The summit may also decide to name a permanent head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers which coordinates policy on the single currency.

Spain's Luis de Guindos is widely tipped to take over the Eurogroup job, currently held by Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, if it is made full-time.

If Thorning-Schmidt misses out on the Council, other possibilities are conservatives Irish Premier Enda Kenny and former Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, while Estonia's Andrus Ansip, who stepped down earlier this year, or Dutch Premier Mark Rutte would suit the centrist Liberals.

Wednesday's discussions will be intense and may yet produce the unexpected -- in 2009, few knew of Ashton until then British premier Tony Blair put her name forward.

If the top jobs are settled, then the EU embarks on the next round, deciding who gets which portfolio in the new 28-seat Commission to be headed by Juncker.

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