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EU leaders tap new top powerbroker at the Council

The EU has a new powerbroker who may rarely get public attention but will have a say in nearly all major subjects: Thérèse Blanchet.

EU leaders on Friday agreed to appoint Blanchet as the next secretary-general of the Council of the EU. Blanchet, who is French-Swiss, currently leads the Council’s legal service.

As first reported by POLITICO, Blanchet emerged in recent days as a compromise candidate to step up and help run the entire Council amid fights between EU members over who should replace Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, Blanchet’s predecessor. Tranholm-Mikkelsen stepped down in March to become the top civil servant at the foreign ministry in Denmark, his home country.

European Council President Charles Michel confirmed the appointment at a press conference Friday afternoon.

Blanchet’s name came as a surprise to many, as she had not been in the discussion for the job prior to this week. Michel formally presented her as a candidate on Friday during the summit, and leaders later signed off on the choice, according to three officials.

The Council of the EU’s secretary-general position is one of the most influential in Brussels. The secretary-general not only sits in on the European Council meetings of EU leaders but has a role in drafting the leaders’ decisions, giving her sway in every key dossier. Additionally, the Council of the EU is one of the main EU institutions helping negotiate and adopt legislation.

For months, countries have been trying to bridge the divides preventing a secretary-general from being named. 

Numerous western countries, and some others, initially backed the French ambassador to the EU, Philippe Léglise-Costa, as their preferred candidate. French President Emmanuel Macron personally pushed for Léglise-Costa, but some diplomats did not think French officials were unanimously behind him. 

Separately, many eastern members were concerned about another close Macron ally securing such a senior role. Over at the European Council, Michel is already considered tight with Macron, and some countries were wary of the Council of the EU moving closer to Paris. 

Enter Blanchet. While part French, she is not seen as a “Paris person,” one diplomat said.

For a time, the EU’s eastern wing was behind another experienced ambassador, Matti Maasikas, as their candidate. Maasikas served in Brussels as Estonia’s ambassador to the EU and is now the EU’s ambassador in Ukraine. The easterners also argued they were under-represented among the top ranks in the Council.

But the deciding factor appeared to come Friday, when, according to some diplomats, Macron opted to switch and back Blanchet for the job.

Blanchet is a highly respected EU official but doesn’t come from the typical background of past secretaries-general, who often have experience as an EU ambassador or a “sherpa,” the officials who help prepare national leaders for their EU work.

Some are concerned that Michel supported Blanchet to give his team more control over the Council of the EU, even though the institution is meant to work for member states.

The move “certainly won’t silence suspicions that President Michel is looking for a weak secretary-general in order to try and exercise more power himself,” another diplomat said.

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