How many presidents does it take the to run EU?

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MADRID (AP) — Europe spent years trying to create the post of EU president. Now it has three.

On Friday, the EU’s three top executives take the stage together for the first time in a news conference that critics say makes a mockery of the bloc’s stated goal to streamline its decision making process.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero this month assumed the rotating EU presidency weeks after Belgian Herman van Rompuy became the bloc’s first permanent president. The EU also has another president in Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission chief.

The spectacle of the three sharing the spotlight Friday in Madrid was bound to lead many to ask an obvious question: Who, exactly, is in charge?

It was all not supposed to be this way.

The EU harbored lofty ambitions to give Europe a bigger voice on the world stage in forcing Europe to embrace a reform treaty that gives it a full-fledged president — despite repeated “no votes” in member state referendums.

Now, while it’s possible the EU will try to speak louder, it is doubtful its message will be heard any clearer amid a potential cacophony of leaders’ voices competing for attention.

With the November selection of van Rompuy, the former Belgian prime minister, the EU ostensibly fulfilled its dream of creating an executive that would finally give the world somebody to call when it wanted to “speak to Europe.”

But the decision by EU leaders was widely criticized. Few even in Europe had ever heard of the bland, professorial van Rompuy — who appeared to have been picked over heavyweights like Britain’s Tony Blair because he was the least offensive candidate to all.

This week, a further twist became apparent: While the EU has a new permanent president it still hasn’t gotten rid of its rotating six-month presidency, which Zapatero assumed on Jan. 1.

Adding to the confusion is Barroso’s role as European Commission president. He is responsible for running the EU’s day-to-day agenda and has become accustomed to shaking important hands across Europe and in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Brasilia and New Delhi.

The rotating presidency has been an EU fixture since the late 1950s and the holder has often played a vital role in acting as an arbiter on contentious issues ranging from farm subsidies to the very contours of the EU’s once ambitious reform plan.

Ironically, the confusing wealth of presidents is a legacy of hard-fought reforms to overhaul EU institutions and decision-making powers after the bloc nearly doubled in size in 2004.

The measures cut red tape, provided for simpler voting rules and gave the European Parliament a big say in shaping EU policies. But they also created Barroso’s position and paved the way for Van Rompuy’s unlikely ascension.

The architects of the Lisbon Treaty — as the EU’s reform blueprint is called — had envisioned the permanent EU president holding far greater clout than the EU’s rotating presidency.

But this week, Zapatero put that notion to rest — making clear he has no intention of taking a back seat to Van Rompuy.

“We need to play our role,” Zapatero said. He said it will be Van Rompuy’s task to prepare and chair summit meetings of EU leaders and “represent the EU abroad.”

But the rotating presidency, he told journalists, would be the EU’s motor: It “has to act as a factory of ideas and initiatives.”

As to Barroso, he said, “it remains the job of the European Commission’s job remains to guarantee compliance with the EU treaty.”