By STEPHEN CASTLE
Published: November 4, 2009
BRUSSELS — A day after the Lisbon Treaty won final approval, Belgium’s prime minister emerged as the favorite on Wednesday to take the European Union’s first presidential post, with Britain in the running for the top foreign policy job.
Diplomats said that momentum was with the prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy, and that David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, was well placed to become the E.U. foreign policy chief if his government pushed for him.
Although the Lisbon Treaty, which creates the two jobs, is now certain to come into force, fresh potential complications arose on Wednesday after criticism in a speech in London from the leader of the British Conservatives, whom many expect to win elections next year.
The leader, David Cameron, pulled back from a potential confrontation with the E.U. by abandoning his pledge to hold a referendum on the accord. But Mr. Cameron promised a new law stating that any new transfer of powers would require a public referendum. He also called for the restoration of powers on social, employment and criminal justice from the E.U. to national governments and promised, if elected, to create a sovereignty law giving “an assurance that the final word on our laws is here in Britain.”
From his speech, it was unclear how far this would be pushed and whether it would breach the principle of the supremacy of E.U. law on which policies like the bloc’s single market are based.
Mr. Cameron’s readjustment of policy was a recognition that if he won power next year, the Lisbon Treaty, and the leadership jobs it creates, would already be in place.
In fact, the bloc’s 27 leaders are expected to discuss names for the new posts informally when they meet in Berlin next Monday to observe the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decision will then be made at a special summit meeting within the next two weeks.
The chances that Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, will win the presidential post have faded. But reaction to reports that Mr. Van Rompuy was a potential candidate have been positive. Other potential contenders include the Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, and Wolfgang Schüssel, former chancellor of Austria.
“The leaders want someone who doesn’t overshadow them, can make compromises and speaks many of their languages,” said a diplomat speaking on the condition of anonymity, “Van Rompuy is all three.”
France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has said that although Mr. Blair would be a good presidential candidate, Britain’s self-exclusion from the euro zone is a problem for such an appointment.
Yet this situation that does not apply to the foreign policy job because Britain is an influential force on E.U. external policy. Other contenders include Massimo D’Alema, former prime minister of Italy.
Though Mr. Van Rompuy has impressed Mr. Sarkozy and Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, there is still some reservations about appointing a low-key, technocratic, operator.
“The idea was to appoint someone who can stop the traffic in Beijing,” an E.U. diplomat said.
Moreover, it remains unclear whether Mr. Brown wants Mr. Miliband to get the foreign policy job and leave his government because this would also mean that Britain would not get an economic portfolio in the next European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cameron, the British opposition leader, sought to tread a difficult line between positioning himself as a pragmatic potential prime minister and losing his credentials as a critic of European integration.
In his speech, Mr. Cameron made clear that if he won the British elections in 2010, he would not allow his first months in power to be overshadowed by a bitter battle with the E.U.
Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, said Mr. Cameron had avoided the “trap” of calling a referendum that would only encourage those in Britain who want to quit the E.U.
“Given the pressure he is under,” Mr. Grant said, “this is a fairly professional, clever package which is probably not going to cause dramatic disruption in the E.U. There is a risk of him losing over social policy though a fudge may be available.”
Though the Conservative Party took Britain into the bloc in the 1970s, it has steadily shifted toward Euroskepticism. Mr. Cameron also upset the French and German governments this year by pulling out of their center-right party in the European Parliament.
On Wednesday he denied that his party was in turmoil over European policy.
“Not at all,” Mr. Cameron told GMTV. “The party actually wants us to have a fresh approach in Europe. But above all, the vote that we need is a vote to get rid of a government that has completely let people down.”