Speculation mounts over Solana leaving job

Speculation is mounting that Javier Solana, the EU's top diplomat, will step down for health reasons with the former Swedish, Slovak and Austrian prime ministers reportedly first in line to succeed him.

Intense rumours about an end to the Solana era have been circulating in Brussels for the last couple of weeks, with several reasons being cited for his possible imminent retirement.

One version says it became clear to the Spaniard during the Lebanon crisis in the summer that he could never really act on behalf of the EU, with member states refusing to give him a clear mandate.

Mr Solana also had to recently admit that his efforts to get Iran to halt uranium enrichment - which he had exceptionally handled on behalf of all UN veto powers - have stalled.

On top of this, the deadlock on the EU constitution means that Mr Solana will not get the job as official EU foreign minister - foreseen for November in the shelved charter.

Highly-skilled diplomat

Generally, the Spanish socialist is seen as a highly skilled diplomat who has managed to survive seven years in the gruelling position without facing much political flak.

He is seen as at least having given a positive face to EU foreign policy - despite the domain being still very much in member state hands.

But Austrian paper Der Kurier on Wednesday (18 October) reported that the 64-year old Mr Solana could nevertheless soon step down - for health reasons.

German chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly had a long phone call with the Spaniard last week in which he said he would follow his doctor's advice and soon quit the job, otherwise "he would be dead in twelve months" - even if this was not visible in his appearance and in his statements.

The Austrian paper writes that Ms Merkel, whose country will hold the EU presidency in the first half of next year, has shortlisted two favourites to succeed Mr Solana: Slovakia's former prime minister Miklas Dzurinda and Austria's outgoing leader Wolfgang Schussel.

The report contradicts earlier speculation saying that Berlin has its own candidate - EU industry commissioner Guenter Verheugen.

Verheugen not interested

Mr Verheugen however told Germany's Die Welt on Thursday that he is not interested in the post, saying he consciously said farewell to foreign policy when he left the commission's enlargement department in 2004.

Another strong candidate who has been doing the rounds is Sweden's former prime minister Carl Bildt, who is back on the EU stage since he was appointed foreign minister in the new Swedish centre-right government.

Insiders say Mr Bildt is not hiding his ambitions to obtain the top job, while also having a huge network in international affairs.

The chances of the rumoured candidates is set to depend to a large extent on their ability to bridge the gap between "atlanticist" states - such as the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands and new member states - and proponents of distance to Washington - notably France.

Mr Dzurinda is known as a strong pro-US politician - and therefore difficult to accept by Paris.

Mr Schussel, on the other hand, makes no secret of his opposition to Turkish EU accession which would put him at odds with the UK.

Not everyone meanwhile is convinced by the "health" argument for Mr Solana quitting his job, with one EU official telling Austria's Der Standard newspaper that the Spanish diplomat jogs for an hour with his bodyguards every day.

[Source: By Mark Beunderman, Euobserver, Brussels, 19Oct06]

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