The List

European Idol

Handicapping the race for EU president.

It's been a big few weeks for foreign-policy wonks with a betting streak, with the awarding of the 2016 Olympics and Nobel Prizes as well as Ireland's ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Although some hurdles remain, the referendum has made the creation of a president of the European Union much more likely -- spurring some serious transatlantic speculation over who would fit the bill.

Normally, the politicking over which continental political heavyweight might grab an EU post is minimal. The roles tend to be bureaucratic and, put frankly, Brussels tends to be a pretty dull place. But the novelty and the relatively undefined nature of the beefed-up EU presidency has given the race some intrigue.

As certain politicians have emerged as speculative front-runners, an informal set of criteria has emerged as well. European leaders and Brussels-watchers handicapping the race often comment on the characteristics they deem desirable in an EU president.

First, the president should be, well, boring -- like Brussels itself. Politicians have knocked down candidates for being too controversial or too outspoken. Second, he should likely hold center-right or Christian Democratic political tendencies, given that Europe itself is headed that direction. Third, he should come from a country that uses the euro -- showing full fealty to the concept of the union. Fourth, he should come from a small European country -- anything other than Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, which normally dominate the union's affairs. Finally, two wild-card characteristics: He should ideally speak French and have opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq -- if not at the time, then soon afterward.

Above, I've judged the most-often mentioned candidates on these parameters. And below, I'll discuss the top contenders in more detail.

Bertie Ahern

Title: Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland from 1997 to 2008

Politics: Center-right, pro-business

Odds: 10 to 1

Ahern helped broker the Northern Irish peace agreement and spurred the Irish economy to become the fastest-growing in Europe, winning the moniker the "Celtic Tiger." But he also oversaw a building boom and credit bubble -- meaning Ireland fell into a deep depression when the credit crunch and global financial crisis hit. He resigned amid a brewing scandal over illegal campaign donations.

Ahern is well-liked and well-respected as a deal-maker. He recently received the backing of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (though he would back fellow Pole Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president, if he ran). But Ahern is likely too brash to win over Brussels -- he (gasp) even said he wanted the gig.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Title: Prime minister of Denmark from 2001 to 2009, current secretary-general of NATO

Politics: Center-right, Christian Democrat, free market liberal

Odds: 6 to 1

This "Dashing Dane" (repeatedly cited as the handsomest European leader, much to Silvio Berlusconi's chagrin) is intelligent, centrist, and popular. He is also a dominant power broker on the European stage as the current secretary-general of NATO. But he only won the job with U.S. support, because he is strongly disliked in Turkey. (He refused to apologize for a Danish paper's printing of an incendiary cartoon of Prophet Mohammed.) He also won plaudits for his oversight of the contentious 2002 EU expansion debates.

His chances might be hurt by some of Denmark's EU opt-outs -- particularly its decision not to use the euro or take up a common defense agreement. But Rasmussen has ordered referendums on those issues and is both pro-euro and pro-European integration. He also might appeal to small countries, which will want the presidency to go to politicians from dominant EU powers, Britain, France, and Germany.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Paavo Lipponen

Title: Prime minister of Finland from 1995 to 2003

Politics: Center-left, Social Democratic

Odds: 5 to 1

Lipponen is often cited as a leading candidate who might win the all-clear if not the support of Britain, France, and Germany. He ushered Finland -- traditionally a neutral country that has long resisted aligning itself with Europe -- into the European Union. He was and remains consensus-oriented -- and is dry enough to appease Brussels. He also speaks fluent French and English, two tacit requirements.

He does, however, have two main marks against him. First, he is a Social Democrat at a time when Europe is moving right. Second, there were allegations that he supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a decision that contributed to the loss of his position as prime minister. (Lipponen has since attested to his and Finland's neutrality.)

Commentators have also noted that Lipponen's election might imply a more minimalist, domestically focused role for the EU president. He is well-respected in Europe, but does not carry much international clout.

Paul J Richards/Getty Images

Jean-Claude Juncker

Title: Prime minister of Luxembourg since 1995, chairman of the Eurogroup

Politics: Conservative, Christian Democrat

Odds: 4 to 1

Juncker is currently the longest-serving head of government in Europe, strongly pro-integration, and popular on the continent and in his country. He was one of the primary architects of the Maastricht Treaty, which led to the creation of the euro, and engineered the opt-out clause. He also initiated the "Luxembourg process" for integrating European policy against unemployment. Juncker is generally inoffensive and something of a snooze -- which, in Brussels, are considered major pluses.

But Juncker has advocated for the EU presidency to go to a small country, possibly from "New Europe" as opposed to "Old Europe," and not to a juggernaut like Germany or Britain.  This might ruffle feathers. British ministers have raised questions about Juncker's federalism -- his advocacy for more monolithic and stronger Europe policies -- and might attempt to block his ascension.

Patrik Stollarz/Getty Images

 

 

Jan Peter Balkenende

Title: Prime minister of the Netherlands since 2002

Politics: Christian Democrat

Odds: 3 to 1

Balkenende -- nicknamed "Harry Potter" by the Dutch press for his youthful looks -- ticks numerous boxes. (In fact, he and Juncker are the only two politicians who seem to tick all of them.) He's a conservative, but works readily in coalitions with his country's left-wing parties. He is from a small Benelux country, with a strongly pro-Europe and highly inclusive bent. He is somewhat soft-spoken and obscure continent-wide -- characteristics that might be a plus, given that he has relatively few enemies.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Tony Blair

Title: Prime minister of Britain from 1997 to 2007

Politics: Labour, center-left

Odds: 2 to 1

Blair is the most commonly mentioned name for EU president, and -- not coincidentally -- the most famous politician in Europe. As the head of Britain's center-left Labour Party, he presided over a long period of expansion in the British economy. He was also notable for his strident support of the U.S. war in Iraq and for his euro-skepticism. Indeed, Britain has not adopted the euro and has chafed against integrating economic and defense policy with the continent. He is also derided as a "poodle" or "lap dog" for Washington.

Blair's ace in the hole is his international stature: He has a command of the international stage like no other European. If Europe decides it wants to take on the United States and China as a world superpower, Blair would be the president who commanded the most attention. Whether this counts for or against him remains the question.

Rick Gerson/Getty Images

The List

Out of Office, Into Court

Four former world leaders who recently learned that immunity from prosecution doesn't last forever ... and one current one who may soon find out for himself.

ALBERTO FUJIMORI

RAUL GARCIA PEREIRA/AFP/Getty Images

Country: Peru

Charges: Corruption. Secretly wiretapped 28 politicians, journalists and businessmen. Bribed 13 congressmen, a TV station, and a newspaper editorial board

Developments: Fujimori, who ruled Peru from 1990-2000, was sentenced to six years in prison on September 30 after his fourth and final corruption trial. He was sentenced to 25 years in April for ordering killings and kidnappings by his security forces. In July he was sentenced to 7 1/2 years for giving $15 million of state money to his spy chief. He was also convicted in 2007 of abuse of power and sentenced to six years.  He admitted to the wiretappings and bribes during his latest trial.

Fujimori fled to Japan in 2000 after a series of videos leaked showing his spy chief handing piles of money to opposition leaders and media figures. He sent in his resignation via fax machine and lived in Japan for seven years.  There may, however, be a light at the end of the tunnel for the jailed former president. Fujimori's daughter, a frontrunner in the current presidential contest, says she will pardon her father if elected.

 

DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Country: France

Charges: Complicity in false accusation, complicity in using forgeries, receipt of stolen property and breach of trust

Developments: The scandal surrounding Villepin dates back to 2004, when the then foreign minister was given a list of alleged bribe-takers from his friend and former vice president of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company Jean-Louis Gergorin. The list implicated French businessmen and politicians, including now President Nicolas Sarkozy, of receiving $1.2 billion in bribes from sales of warships to Taiwan in 1991. The list was later proven to be a forgery.  Instead of immediately turning the list over to authorities, Villepin had it privately investigated, which he claims was proper protocol. At the time, Villepin and Sarkozy were fierce rivals in the conservative party, both leading candidates to succeed then President Jacques Chirac.

Sarkozy claims that Villepin knew the list was forged when he sent it to an investigative judge in an effort to smear him and ruin his chances at the presidency. Villepin, who has been out of office since May 2007, denies that allegation. The trial started September 21 and is expected to last until October 21. If convicted, Villepin could face five years in jail and a $65,000 fine.

Villepin is best known outside of France for his February 2003 U.N. speech opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is a career diplomat who served as chief of staff, foreign minister, interior minister and prime minister in Chirac’s government. Villepin has not ruled out a run for the presidency in 2012; however this scandal has the potential to derail his chances of a future political career.

EHUD OLMERT

David Silverman/Getty Images

Country: Israel

Charges: Failing to declare income, breaching trust, and falsifying corporate records

Developments: Olmert’s alleged crimes occurred when he was Jerusalem's mayor and a cabinet minister  before being elected prime minister in 2006. Olmert insists he is not guilty, and some speculate the trial could go on for as long as four years. He is the first Israeli prime minister to stand trial. Among the accusations is that Olmert over-charged Jewish charities $92,000 for trips abroad. He allegedly kept this money in a secret account used for treating his family and himself to luxuries.

Olmert was dogged by corruption allegations throughout his time as prime minister, including accusations that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money from an American businessman. Olmert claims the money was used for campaigning, but the businessman, Morris Talansky, hints they were used to buy everything from watches to cigars. Olmert was also widely criticized for his handling of Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. He stepped down this March, saying that the ongoing corruption investigation was making it impossible for him to lead.

CHEN SHUI-BIAN

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Country: Taiwan

Charges: Taking $9 million in bribes, stealing from the presidential fund

Developments:  After he was reelected in 2004 allegations, corruption allegations against Chen and his family started to build. In July 2006, his son-in-law was arrested for insider trading. Then, in November of that year, his wife was charged with corruption and forgery and his son and daughter-in-law with money laundering. Presidential immunity kept Chen from being indicted while in office, but an investigation into alleged corruption was launched just one hour after he stepped down in May 2008. Earlier this month, Chen and his wife were sentenced to life in prison. His son and daughter-in-law also received shorter sentences.

The family took at least $9 million in bribes through a land deal, using Swiss bank accounts to try to cover their tracks. They also were convicted of misusing millions of dollars in the presidential fund. Chen, a fierce critic of mainland China, claims the conviction is politically motivated in an effort to appease China. Chen spent two weeks on a hunger strike during the trial. Many Taiwanese continue to believe that the changes against Chen are politically motivated.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Country : Italy

Charges: Currently none

Developments: Even after 2,500 hearings, 587 visits by the police and $272.9 million in legal fees during his political career, Italy’s prime minsiter is still unlikely to see the inside of a courtroom any time soon. Most recently, he was charged with bribing a lawyer to lie about evidence in a corruption trial. However, the charges were dropped  last year when Berlusconi was “freed” by a new immunity law that suspends criminal cases against the prime minister while in office. His lawyer was convicted of taking the bribe and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in jail. Berlusconi says the amnesty allows him to perform his job without being harassed by the magistrates.

Berlusconi claims judges in Milan hold left-wing biases and as a result are trying to take him down with charges of corruption, tax evasion and fraud. He has gone to trial on charges of corruption six times before, each time acquitted or freed after the statute of limitations ran out. The latest corruption charge, for which he could go on trial once out of office, is based on his media company’s purchase of American film rights. Prosecutors believe the prices of these rights were artificially inflated by third parties, with the extra money going into secret funds used to pay off politicians. The seemingly teflon prime minister is probably safe for now, but he can likely look forward to years of legal battles as soon as he steps down.