Tomorrow night, the European Union will have its first-ever president.  Time’s Leo Cendrowicz reports that few Europeans much care, perhaps because they have no voice in the selection.

This should be a momentous occasion for Europe: this week, the European Union will select its first-ever President, a figure who could leave an indelible mark on the continent and live on in history — and on coins — just like George Washington in the U.S.

But one wouldn’t know it on the streets of Paris, Athens or Helsinki. Europeans are by and large apathetic about the idea of having an E.U. President, in part, perhaps, because they aren’t having a say in choosing who it is. Rather than open the contest up to a Europe-wide vote, E.U. leaders are instead making the decision behind closed doors amid a swirl of rumors, gossip and intrigue more befitting a papal conclave than the selection of the head of the largest group of democracies in the world.

If all goes according to plan, the E.U. could know who its President will be following a gathering of E.U. leaders Thursday night in Brussels. (One almost expects a cloud of white smoke to rise from the Justus Lipsius building when a candidate is chosen.) But it won’t be a straight-forward process: the leaders are likely to haggle until the final moment on the President and the new E.U. Foreign Minister in an attempt to strike a balance in politics, gender and geography in the appointments — quite possibly at the expense of qualities like talent and merit.

Already, strategies are unfolding. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have agreed to support a joint candidate for the presidency, although they haven’t named any names yet. The two leaders presented their plan as a way to bolster the French-German axis in the E.U., which is considered key to further European integration, but it angered Eastern European and Scandinavian countries who see it as an attempt to impose a two-state directoire on the E.U. The Benelux countries, meanwhile, are throwing their support behind their own prime ministers — Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium, Peter Balkenende of Holland and Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg.

For many, the behind-the-scenes negotiations run counter to the Lisbon Treaty, which is meant to make the E.U. a more efficient, transparent and democratic system. Former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, one of the few declared candidates for the presidency, said last week that the machinations over the top jobs could ultimately damage the new leaders’ authority. “The E.U. should stop working like the former Soviet Union … in darkness and behind closed doors,” she said.


But Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who is chairing the summit, countered that it was naíve to think the E.U. could have open contest or an official field of declared contenders. “It sends the signal to the people of your country, ‘I’m on my way to another job. On Monday, I’m back again and I didn’t get it but I still love you,'” Reinfeldt said. “Sorry, anyone who has been in politics knows that that’s unrealistic.”

Oddly, American politicians do that with remarkable regularity.  It seems as if half the United States Senate has run unsuccessfully for president, for example, and yet they somehow manage to carry on.

But the fact of the matter is that this position is new and there’s no clear understanding of what the job entails.  As was the case here with George Washington, the first person to hold the office will have enormous power to shape the position.

As our own Nicholas Siegel has argued, the question on this side of the Atlantic is, “Can Europe come up with a president who can stand shoulder to shoulder with Barack Obama on the world stage?” 

Going with a no-name candidate would virtually assure that the EU president remains largely a figurehead, subservient to the heads of the member countries. There’s understandable sentiment in many if not most European capitals for that but it comes at a steep price.  Senior officials in Washington privately express frustration with having to deal with both the EU and its 27 constituent states.  They would certainly welcome having a powerful voice to represent Europe.

Regardless of what they decide in that regard, it’s truly bizarre to have the call made through secret plotting in back rooms.  Europe’s citizens may not be very interested in the process but its outcome will doubtless have a major impact on their lives.  That they not only have no direct voice in choosing the leader but don’t even know who the likely candidates are a day before the announcement is made is unfathomable at this stage of the evolution of Western political institutions.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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