The contest for the final remaining top EU job has become a two-person race between the leaders of Poland and Denmark, pitting a center-right man supported by newer member states in the east against a center-left woman backed by many of Europe’s fiscally prudent north.
The narrowing of a six-person field for European Council president to Donald Tusk, the Polish premier who many say is now the frontrunner, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the multilingual Dane who was initially championed by Berlin and London, came during a series of phone calls between leaders ahead of a summit on Saturday.
Officials directly involved in the negotiations said both candidates face obstacles. Mr Tusk is not fluent in either French or English, prompting many to fear he would not be able to form the needed consensus among the EU’s 28 leaders in contentious debates, the Council president’s primary role.
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However, he has the strong backing of central and eastern European capitals that feel they deserve one of the top jobs after being shut out since the EU expanded to the former Communist east in 2004.
Ms Thorning-Schmidt, who is fluent in both English and French and would be the first woman to hold either of the EU’s presidencies, was an early favorite of David Cameron, UK prime minister, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.
But she has seen her candidacy suffer from the growing consensus that another center-left woman, Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini, will become the EU’s new foreign policy chief. The chance of the EU’s social democrats securing both jobs to be decided on Saturday remains slim.