BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's diluted support for Jean-Claude Juncker's bid to be European Commission president has thrown the field open to other candidates, although it will be weeks before a single nominee emerges.
While Merkel did not rule Juncker out after talks with EU leaders on Tuesday, she acknowledged there was opposition to his candidacy and said a range of top EU jobs could only be decided in negotiations running until late June.
The European People's Party, the EU's center-right political movement of which Merkel's party is a core member, won the most seats in European Parliament elections and is firmly backing Juncker to become Commission president.
"I am a member of the EPP. We nominated Jean-Claude Juncker ... The entire agenda can be implemented by him, but also by many others," Merkel said, choosing her words carefully as reporters peppered her with questions. "But I still have to respect the treaty."
Her reference to the treaty is heavily laden. It says the 28 heads of state and government must agree on a candidate by a "qualified majority", which effectively means all but a handful agreeing.
But with British Prime Minister David Cameron openly opposed to Juncker, who he regards as an old-style European federalist, and countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and some in eastern Europe and the Baltics sharing Britain's concerns, it is not clear there is majority support for the Luxembourger.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said EU leaders had caved into Britain over Juncker's candidacy and called Tuesday's informal summit "sobering, verging on pathetic".
The treaty also says EU leaders must nominate someone "taking into account" the results of the European elections. It does not say they must nominate the candidate chosen by the party that won the European elections.
The only obligation on leaders is to ensure that whoever they pick comes from the center-right EPP family. The nominee must then be approved by parliament.
If Juncker is dropped over the coming weeks - or perhaps given another job such as president of the European Council, who chairs EU summits - plenty of other names are already circulating for the Commission presidency.
The person who is eventually picked for arguably Brussels' most powerful job will go a long way to indicate how genuine the EU is about moving in a new direction prioritizing growth and jobs, which leaders say is necessary to win voters back.
NAMES IN THE HAT
Outgoing Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen has said he is happy to be considered for an EU job, although he has repeatedly said publicly that he backs Juncker's candidacy.
With a polished, youthful appearance, 42-year-old Katainen has the look and style of a high-tech entrepreneur or investment banker, in contrast to 59-year-old Juncker. He has been at the heart of EU decision-making over the past three years and has built many allies among European leaders.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who hosted the convention in Dublin in March that appointed Juncker as the EPP candidate, is another potential compromise, although he too has been at pains to support Juncker publicly.
An energetic 63-year-old, Kenny also has many backers among EU leaders, but his lack of strong French and his deep roots in Irish rather than European politics may undermine his candidacy.
Another frontrunner is Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has become an influential voice in EU negotiations in part because of Poland's economic strength and 38 million people.
Beyond the sitting center-right prime ministers, there are technocrats who might also emerge in the coming weeks of negotiations, which will be led by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy on behalf of EU member states.
The name most frequently mentioned is Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. However, she would have to be nominated by French President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, and there are concerns that if she left the IMF, Europe may never get to nominate the managing director again.
There are many other permutations that will play out in the next month, either as trial balloons or serious proposals, including the possibility that Juncker replaces Van Rompuy when his term expires in October and EU leaders instead nominate a Socialist or liberal candidate to the Commission.
They could also propose a slate of names for the top jobs, which include the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and the commissioner for economic policy and the euro.
Both France and Spain have designs on the economic policy job, and there are suggestions that Germany's Martin Schulz, the current president of the parliament, may be in line for either the foreign policy post or Commission portfolio on industry.
Either way, whoever the leaders choose will still have to be approved by a majority in parliament which is in no mood to bend over backwards.
Even the Socialists, who came second to the EPP, are unhappy having conceded that Juncker had the right to the presidency.
"The conservatives act as if there were no election nor any conservative lead candidate,” Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary leader of Germany's SPD was quoted as saying by Der Spiegel. "We (the SPD) won’t back such deceit of voters because it would cause grave damage to democracy in Europe.”
The hardest job over the coming weeks will be Van Rompuy's, who will have to liaise with Juncker, the heads of political groups in parliament and the parliamentary leadership itself to try to put all the jigsaw pieces in place.
(Editing by Mike Peacock)