(Adds detail, quotes, Desir/Gozi talks)
By Michelle Martin
BERLIN, June 19 (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel heaped praise on Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt on Thursday and said there was no reason why the next president of the European Council should not come from a non-euro zone country such as Denmark.
British officials have mentioned Thorning-Schmidt for the role of European Commission president but the 47-year-old Social Democrat has also been touted as a possible successor to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs EU summits.
Asked if she could imagine Thorning-Schmidt in either job, Merkel reiterated Germany’s support for Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president and said leaders had not yet discussed who should take Van Rompuy’s post when his term ends in November.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is opposed to Juncker, seen by London as an old-style federalist, but he looks increasingly isolated and EU diplomats say the former Luxembourg prime minister is likely to get the nod at next week’s EU summit.
“In principle, it can’t be the case, in the sense of the unity of the European Union, that only someone who is in the euro zone can be Council President. There is no such rule,” Merkel told a news conference in Berlin with Thorning-Schmidt.
“But as I’ve said, that has nothing to do with Denmark in particular - it’s just a general statement,” she said.
Merkel said it was not clear whether EU leaders would decide on a personnel package at a summit next week, adding: “Anyway the Danish prime minister is a great prime minister and I’ve got the impression that she really enjoys her work back home.”
Thorning-Schmidt said she agreed with Merkel that the content laid out in the policy agenda to be outlined by leaders next week was more important than who would carry it out.
“I think the most important thing now is, quite seriously, that you should focus on what we do together in the next five years and that’s more important than who will lead any of the institutions,” she said.
Thorning-Schmidt, married to the son of former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, said Juncker was “a very good candidate” for the EU’s top job, saying she knew him to be a pragmatic politician with a lot of experience.
Merkel said Germany would make decisions in “a European spirit”.
“That doesn’t mean we can fulfill every single wish; it means that we can think about what is important for Britain,” she said, adding that she was prepared to talk “very constructively” with Britain on issues it considered important.
EU diplomats said there was unlikely to be a package of top appointments next week because neither the European Council president nor the EU’s foreign policy chief needed parliamentary approval, whereas the Commission president faces a first vote in the EU assembly in mid-July.
That made it necessary to nominate a candidate by the end of the June 26-27 summit, and there was a growing consensus around Juncker, with the exception of Britain and Hungary.
On the policy agenda, France and Italy said on Thursday that the top priority should be reorienting European economic policy to promote growth and public investment notably in digital and energy networks.
French Secretary of State for European Affairs Harlem Desir and his Italian counterpart, Sandro Gozi, set out a list of priorities after talks in Paris, saying the new European Commission should grant maximum flexibility within existing EU budget rules to countries undertaking growth-promoting investments and structural economic reforms.
Desir said the EU should consider creating a European savings plan to mobilise citizens’ savings to invest in small business and priority infrastructure projects such as extending high-speed broadband and the transition to renewable energy.
France has widely-used tax-exempt savings accounts at public and private banks which drain citizens’ savings for investment in public housing and transport projects.
Gozi said a shift to more growth-friendly economic policies was a condition for Italy’s support for the next Commission president. Asked whether Rome had sought assurances from Juncker, he said: “Not yet.”
The Italian official also said Rome would demand that EU partners share more of the burden of coping with a flood of illegal migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
He called for the EU’s Frontex border management agency to gradually take over the Italian navy’s Mare Nostrum operation to rescue migrants adrift on overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean. (Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Stephen Brown and Paul Taylor)