EXCLUSIVE / One of the most popular and outspoken European politicians, Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium and current leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, is likely to remain outside the race for the post for the next Commission president, EurActiv has learned.

The liberal European family is struggling to find a candidate for Commission president to replace José Manuel Barroso following the 2014 European elections because NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a Danish liberal, is tipped to get another top job – European Council President.

Sources at the Liberal Congress, held in Dublin from 8 to 10 November, said that even if Verhofstadt is an obvious candidate for Commission president, the party is unable to put forward his candidacy, because Rasmussen, a former Danish Prime minister whose mandate as NATO leader expires in 2014, has ambitions to get the job of Herman Van Rompuy as Council president, EurActiv was told.

As a second choice, Rasmussen could succeed Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief.

But in both cases, it is seen as impossible that more than one liberal politician would get more than one of the three top jobs that will be up for grabs almost simultaneously.

The name of Rasmussen has not been publicly pronounced by any of the speakers at the congress.

Verhofstadt pleaded at the Congress that the liberals should have a common candidate for Commission president, insiders said. The two big political families, the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) have already announced that they would elect a candidate for Barroso’s job well ahead the European elections, in June 2014, to mobilise voters.

EPP to nominate Tusk?

The Socialists are expected to nominate Parliament President Martin Schulz, and the EPP would back Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Verhofstadt  said at the Congress, adding that it would be strange if the liberals would “abstain” from the race by not naming their candidate.

Schulz is an almost-certain candidate. However, it is unclear if the EPP nominate Tusk, who comes from a country outside the eurozone and whose command of English may not be sufficient for leading complicated discussions at the highest level.

Statements made from some liberal politicians behind closed doors have indicated that there was no consensus for putting forward a common candidate for Commission president. One speaker even accused Verhofstadt of making use of the floor to promote his own candidacy.

Opponents of Verhofstadt from within his party’s ranks argue that name-dropping at such early stage may be counter-productive. They also say that the candidate likely to be elected has few enemies, implying that the outspoken Verhofstadt is already out of the race.

Déjà vu?

This could be the third time that Verhofstadt loses out on the highest EU executive position.

He was a candidate for the Commission presidency in 2004, but was vetoed by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair. And in 2009, Verhofstadt’s political friends had hoped for a liberal-socialist-green coalition to install him as successor to Barroso. But the Portuguese and Spanish Socialist prime ministers backed Barroso instead, and the centre-left camp followed.

A liberal forum in May will make another attempt to decide on the name of the candidate or candidates for the race, the Congress decided. (According to a draft resolution, consensus was eventually found that the liberals would nominate a candidate for Commission President "in time for the 2014 European Parliamentary election campaign". But the text was not adopted due to disagreements on moving toward transnational lists for 10% of MEPs, on slashing the number of Commissioners, and on appointing half of them from the present MEPs.)

EurActiv asked Rasmussen’s office to comment on his alleged ambition for a top EU job. NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu responded: “The secretary-general's mandate has recently been extended by one year until July 2014. He was very honoured by the trust and support shown by the governments of NATO Allies. So he's got a job, it's a big job, and he's entirely focused on that.”

Earlier date of European election than June 2014?

For the liberals, or at least for those close to Verhofstadt, if the European elections are held in June 2014, this would play in favour of the EU heads of state and government, who have the lead in selecting the new Commission president.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, EU leaders vote by qualified majority for a nominee for the post of president, taking account the results of the latest European election. This proposal is then put before Parliament, which must approve or veto the appointment. If an absolute majority of MEPs support the nominee, he or she is elected.

The problem appears to be that the Parliament does not have enough time to get organised due to the summer recess, and MEPs might not be able to strike an agreement before September, which would give EU leaders the upper hand.

If the elections are held in May, rather than June, the new Parliament would still have time to get organised and play a role in the process, liberals believe. They believe the election of the Commission president should ideally take place in July.