As seasoned Brussels-watchers know, predicting the outcome of the race to be the next European Commission president is a fool's game – but the candidates are already beginning to emerge
Foreign ministers from no less than 11 European Union member states – including Italy, Germany, France and Spain – published an radical vision
for Europe this week. Some of the ideas that were floated were unashamedly federalist. Some even went so far as saying the European Commission president should be directly elected.
The current president, JosÚ Manuel Barroso, is already halfway through his second term but there is no reason why he cannot go for an unprecedented third. His vice-president Viviane Reding recently raised the prospect of a third term for her boss.
Nevertheless, speculation is mounting in Brussels over who will succeed Barroso. Gossip about the runners and riders for the top job are inevitable at this stage in the political cycle. However, this time, things are more complicated. There are new factors to consider – not least how the appointment will be made and whether the nature of the job will change.
The 11 foreign ministers that produced the Future of Europe report go so far as to suggest that the groups could propose one candidate for both the commission president and the council president. This idea was raised by French commissioner Michel Barnier and others last year, who were quick to point out that a single presidential figure combining Barroso's role with that of the council president, currently Herman Van Rompuy, would still be possible under the Lisbon Treaty. This is where the job would be interesting to a political heavyweight like Tony Blair.
The question is, if the two president system continues – more likely, given that one president for both institutions would be politically very difficult – would Tony Blair still be interested? He admits he was keen when the council president position first came up but he has since seen just how limited Van Rompuy has been in that role.
Blair believes he has one big job left in him. Could it be commission president? And if it is, is he ready to openly campaign for the nominations from centre left parties across Europe? Even then, who is to say that the job will not go to a centre right politician? Tony Blair will need the German Social Democrats to join – if not form – a new government in 2013 if he is to be in any position to get the support he needs.
Each of the political groups will kick off the nomination process this autumn. Their nominations will change the whole dynamic of appointing the commission president. Previously, candidates would lobby the capitals of Europe to get enough support to be considered by the 'Great Powers' as a suitable candidate. This time, they would have strong political backing to help them make their case. Undoubtedly, big personality candidates will raise the profile of the European elections also in 2014.
Blair is still not forgiven by many on the European left for his hawkish stance on Iraq, so he has a tough battle ahead if he wants to be the nomination from the Socialists and Democrats. The S&D are likely to hold primaries in January 2014. Do not be surprised if Martin Schulz, the currently president of the European Parliament, comes through as a contender. He is German but with very good links to the French centre-left.
Speculation about possible candidates for the centre right European People's Party seems more informed. If Barroso decides to step down, his cheerleader Viviane Reding is likely to step forward. She has already been the head of three commission departments: education, information and justice, and is popular with the group's MEPs. This may be because she has said on record she would like to see the parliament elect the commission president. Nevertheless the present frontrunner appears to be Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Elsewhere, for the ALDE group the Belgian liberal and former premier Guy Verhofstadt is the current favourite. He was ruled out by Tony Blair when he sought the appointment back in 2004.
The Autumn Congresses of the main political groups will see some new names emerge. If France and Germany decide that a politician from a small member state should be appointed, then former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, for example, will suddenly become a contender. So, the process is set to become more political – and perhaps less predictable.
And yet, it may result in a non-politician being appointed. Angela Merkel is privately keen – despite recent tensions between them – that the technocratic prime minister of Italy and former commissioner Mario Monti is considered. Seasoned Brussels-watchers know that it is foolish to predict the outcome. Whatever the result, the race starts now.
Kevin Doran is the managing director of the Grayling consultancy in Brussels but writes here in a personal capacity