Paris The European Union has battled long and hard for this moment: the imminent choice of its first president.
To get there, the EU strong-armed Irish voters, brushed aside hostile French and Dutch ballots, and pressured the Czech president into agreeing to a single leader to give Europe a strong voice on the world stage.
Yet after all that, EU leaders meeting Thursday may end up picking someone from a small country with little international power instead of a charismatic heavyweight to head this continental bloc of 27 nations, half a billion people and huge economic heft.
To pick a boss they can all live with, they must strike the right balance between big countries and small, east and west, socialists and conservatives, perhaps male and female. They must maneuver between proponents of a strong Europe and those who fear it — eurocentrics and euroskeptics, in the local parlance.
It’s a diplomatic minefield.
The decision will help define Europe’s future, the climax of a decade of agonized contortions and oft-thwarted efforts to make the EU about more than money and markets and common rules about what bananas Europeans can buy.
“The time has come to have a personality who will make an imprint ... a European mark” on world affairs from Iran’s nuclear program to relations with Russia, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said last week.
“We should have weight in the world; we are 500 million people,” he said. “We should participate in world events and not just finance them.”
The early favorite was Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, but his candidacy has run into trouble. He cuts a big figure on the world stage — perhaps too big for the liking of other powerful figures such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Now the talk among diplomats is that the EU president won’t be that globally powerful after all and that the role will primarily be to liaise internally among EU governments. That would leave room for a low-profile president and a more eye-catching figure in the No. 2 slot of EU foreign minister, which carries the real international oomph.