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New frontrunner emerges to take powerful Council top job

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A new name has emerged as the leading candidate to take on the highly powerful role of secretary-general of the Council of the European Union: Thérèse Blanchet.

According to five officials, Blanchet, who leads the Council’s legal service, has become a late contender to take over as secretary-general — one of the faceless powerbrokers that help Brussels function. The Council’s secretary-general sits in the room when EU leaders meet, takes part in drafting leaders’ decisions and has a say on all important topics.

The job has been vacant since March, when the Council’s previous secretary-general, Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, stepped down to become the top civil servant at the foreign ministry in Denmark, his home country.

The race to replace Tranholm-Mikkelsen has exposed underlying tensions between the EU’s western and eastern members, especially as Russia’s war in Ukraine has given eastern countries greater say. In the meantime, the delay in finding a replacement has embarrassed many officials and diplomats. 

Now, Blanchet has entered the race as a late, compromise candidate amid the East-West tussle.

Several western capitals have been backing the French ambassador to the EU, Philippe Léglise-Costa, as their preferred candidate. Some diplomats said French President Emmanuel Macron pushed for him. 

But the European Council President Charles Michel has resisted Léglise-Costa’s appointment, wary after several countries pushed back strongly, the diplomats added. 

The concern came mostly from eastern members who didn’t want France to take over a key job at the Council of the EU, one of the EU institutions helping negotiate and adopt legislation. France is already seen as close to Michel, who as the head of the European Council gathers EU leaders and helps provide political guidance to the rest of the EU institutions. 

As an alternative to Léglise-Costa, several eastern members and Baltic states supported another experienced ambassador, Matti Maasikas, who served in Brussels as Estonia’s ambassador to the EU and is now the EU’s ambassador in Ukraine. 

It’s unclear whether these members will now agree to support Blanchet. Several diplomats said it could depend on whether Estonia agrees to drop its support for Maasikas.

“For many in the East, the [European] Commission works mainly for the founding countries,” said one diplomat, referencing the historically close links between the EU’s executive body and the bloc’s western-oriented early members.

For easterners, the Council of the EU secretary-general role “is key to balance power with the Commission.” And they stress that the East is underrepresented among the Council’s directors-generals, who oversee departments.

Tthe Council of the EU’s previous secretary-general Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen stepped down to become the top civil servant at the foreign ministry in Denmark, his home country | Council of the European Union

However, Maasikas’ opponents noted the Baltics already hold another key EU position — Ilze Juhansone, a Latvian, serves as the Commission’s secretary-general. 

Another contender for the Council’s secretary-general role is the former Romanian ambassador to the EU, Luminiţa Odobescu. A French speaker who is well versed in EU affairs, Odobescu would have the advantage of coming from Central Europe. At a certain point, her name was gaining momentum, but two diplomats said Paris stopped it.

Michel’s critics allege the European Council president resisted Léglise-Costa in the hope of finding someone willing to defer more power to his own chief of Cabinet, Frédéric Bernard. Michel’s European Council only employs about 3,000 people, and Michel himself has a team of just a few dozen — a far cry from the European Commission’s 30,000-strong civil service. 

Michel’s supporters argue that Léglise-Costa is too divisive for the role. 

Blanchet — who has had a more low-profile career at the Council of the EU and is Swiss-French — may not carry as much baggage and may prove more palatable. She is described as well prepared, with moderate views on migration but strict views on the rule of law. 

Michel is expected to propose Blanchet’s name to EU leaders when they meet in Prague on Thursday and Friday. There is no concrete timeline for making a final decision, however.

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