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EU leaders look to fill jobs as Ukraine crisis flares

EU leaders will meet on Saturday (Aug 30) in a second attempt to find the right candidate for two of the biggest jobs in Brussels, a painstaking exercise that may be overtaken by the crisis in Ukraine.

BRUSSELS: EU leaders will meet on Saturday (Aug 30) in a second attempt to find the right candidate for two of the biggest jobs in Brussels, a painstaking exercise that may be overtaken by the crisis in Ukraine.

North versus south, left versus right, man or woman: filling plum posts at the European Union requires a delicate compromise among the bloc's 28 countries. Over the course of a rare Saturday summit, leaders must cut through the colliding interests and find the right person to lead the bloc's foreign policy, succeeding Catherine Ashton, and a new EU president after Herman van Rompuy.

Filling the EU's top jobs can be a human resources nightmare, with national pride and age-old rivalries often rearing their heads. Regional dynamics, and more recently gender parity, also come into play. But with crises boiling over in the Middle East and especially Ukraine, hopes are that the European leaders may swiftly move on from haggling over jobs to tackling the more pressing issues, which will also be on the agenda.

A NEW FACE FOR EUROPE

Favourite to replace Ashton, a British peer, for the next five years is Federica Mogherini, Italy's 41-year-old foreign minister, hailed by her supporters as a new, younger face for Europe. Mogherini's candidacy initially faced fierce resistance, with eastern European countries criticising her as both inexperienced - she became minister only in February, and too soft on Russia.

On these grounds, Mogherini's candidacy was successfully derailed by the eastern Europeans at a first top jobs summit in July, angering Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi accused EU partners of a lack of "respect".

But six weeks on and after a second round of sanctions against Russia, Mogherini is "clearly the way the wind is blowing", a European source told AFP. This would leave the key EU president job, currently held by the quiet, yet efficient Van Rompuy of Belgium, as the real unknown for Saturday's deliberations.

With the left-of-centre and south-European Mogherini likely approved, the subtle arithmetic of EU politics would call for a right-leaning and eastern European to take the president post. For now, two names fill the criteria: Donald Tusk, the current Prime Minister of Poland, and Valdis Dombrovskis, the former Prime Minister of Latvia.

As the summit approaches, Tusk seems to have the edge. Backed by Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor and the EU's most powerful leader, the Polish premier, who speaks neither English or French, seems to have overcome a personal clash with Britain's David Cameron over migration policy to be favourite.

Dombrovskis has the misfortune of being from a small country, but is nevertheless lauded as a rare example of good European leadership after steering Latvia from severe recession to solid growth during the financial crisis. And given tensions with Russia, choosing a Kremlin-sceptic Balt would send a strong message to Moscow.

The EU president job is primarily one of coordination, requiring a deft touch to navigate the bloc's leaders in laying the groundwork for summits. Long-shots to take on this role, if the Mogherini-Tusk combination falls through, are Ireland's premier Enda Kenny and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, though France has indicated resistance to a candidate from a non-euro country, even if from the left.

JUNCKER CALLS FOR MORE WOMEN

The EU is effectively led by a trio and filling out the group is the already named Jean-Claude Juncker, a grizzled European political veteran whose nomination to head the European Commission by EU leaders in June was met with fierce resistance from Britain's David Cameron.

The former Luxemburg premier replaces Jose Manuel Barroso on November 1 and is in the process of filling posts for the next Commission with nominees provided by each member state. With the exception of foreign policy, Juncker has power over the portfolios allocated. The economic jobs are the most coveted, but he has refused so far to show his hand. Juncker's main problem is the lack of women. Barroso's outgoing Commission has nine women and so far governments have sent Juncker only four, including Mogherini.

On Monday, Gianni Pittella, the leader of the socialists in European parliament said her group would oppose "a college of European commissioners with fewer women than today." If the lawmakers follow through on their threat, the long effort to staff the next commission, including replacing Ashton, may well have to start from scratch.