WARSAW/BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) - Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is seriously considering a proposal that he take the post of president of the European Council, a Warsaw government spokeswoman said on Thursday, linking his decision to the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine.
Earlier several sources familiar with the selection process said Tusk, a centre-right pro-European, is clear favourite for the top job when European Union leaders meet for a special summit on Saturday.
"European leaders are increasingly strongly persuading Donald Tusk to assume the post of president of the European Council," Polish government spokeswoman Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska told Reuters. "The prime minister is treating this proposal very seriously, analysing its consequences for Poland, its security, especially in light of the Ukraine crisis."
If confirmed, his appointment to chair and steer policymaking meetings of EU leaders would be a victory for the 10 ex-communist central and eastern European countries that joined the EU a decade ago. They have demanded that one of the top jobs go to a candidate from their region. It would also consecrate Poland's rise as a major player in the 28-nation bloc alongside EU founders France and Germany.
Tusk's government has been among the most hawkish in Europe over Ukraine, pressing for tougher sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and involvement in an uprising by pro-Moscow separatists in the east of the former Soviet republic.
The Kremlin's retaliatory measures have hurt Polish food exporters but Warsaw has demanded that NATO beef up its military presence in Europe in the face of resistance from other European allies.
Two Brussels sources said current council president Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs and prepares EU summits, is consulting fellow leaders on a package deal in a round of telephone calls on Thursday and Friday.
"Van Rompuy is to call EU leaders today and if no one is opposed to Tusk there is a deal," a person involved in the process said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the consultations.
Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, a centre-left socialist, would become EU foreign policy chief and Spanish Economy Minister Luis De Guindos would succeed Jeroen Dijsselbloem as chairman of euro zone finance ministers when the Dutchman's term expires, the sources said.
Whoever wins the post of European Council president is expected to chair euro zone summits, even if he or she comes from a non-euro zone country such as Poland, a third source said. "France accepted that in July," the person said.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on Thursday he was "almost in no danger" of being appointed as the EU foreign policy chief. He is Poland's candidate for the post and it would be unlikely for Warsaw to get two of the senior jobs.
BRITAIN, GERMANY, FRANCE ON BOARD
Britain was first to endorse Tusk publicly as a candidate on Tuesday, hoping to balance out former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, a veteran advocate of deeper EU integration, who was chosen in June to head the executive European Commission against fierce British objections.
Prime Minister David Cameron's spokeswoman said Tusk shared Britain's desire to reform the EU.
Diplomatic sources said German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried for months to persuade Tusk, 57, to take one of the top EU jobs but he initially rebuffed her, saying he wanted to lead his party to an unprecedented third term in power next year.
An economic liberal and advocate of free trade, Tusk's weak point is that he speaks little English and no French, making it harder for him to communicate to a wide audience.
As well as the Ukraine crisis, the new leadership team will have to shape Europe's response to issues including an economic slowdown in the euro zone and Britain's uncertain future in the bloc.
In what one official described as "a subtle game where no candidates campaign", Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a reformist social democrat, was the initial front-runner for the presidency at an inconclusive July 16 summit.
But she said on Thursday she was not putting herself forwards as a candidate.
Diplomats said eastern objections to Mogherini, who has been accused of being too "soft" on Moscow over Ukraine, would subside if Tusk got the senior job.
The sense of broad support for a Tusk-Mogherini ticket is based on telephone conversations between officials in Brussels and EU leaders, potentially allowing Van Rompuy to propose the pair on Saturday, officials and diplomats said.
Getting a balance of representation among the 28 EU countries, between male and female and among political groups is a delicate business that proved too much for leaders in July.
Another failure would delay allocating top posts in the European Commission, the EU executive, and send a bad signal at a time when the euro zone is facing economic stagnation and the crisis in Ukraine has severely strained relations with Russia, the EU's main energy supplier.
A source familiar with French government thinking said President Francois Hollande had dropped objections to giving the council presidency to a candidate from a country that is not a member of the euro zone.
Having Tusk at the helm could hasten Poland's entry into the currency area, especially if he also chairs euro zone summits that must be convened at least twice a year under EU rules.
"France will not block Tusk," the source said. "Hollande has build good relations with him and they have done several deals together."
Opponents of the 41-year-old Mogherini have not found a consensus figure to challenge her as the front-runner, while as a woman, she also helps meet European Parliament demands that more senior posts in EU institutions go to female candidates.
Juncker, who won parliamentary endorsement in July to head the Commission that proposes and enforces laws for 500 million Europeans, is expected to announce his full team next week from candidates put forward by governments.
Juncker has been frustrated that so many capitals have nominated men for Commission jobs. He said this week that a Commission without sufficient women would be "less legitimate and hardly representative" and that he would have to compensate by giving women more important posts.
The European Parliament, which must approve the choices for the top jobs, also wants to see more women in EU jobs and its president, Martin Schulz, warned in July that the EU legislature "will not accept a gentlemen's club."
(Additional reporting by Aija Krutaine in Riga, Sabina Zawadzki in Copenhagen, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Wiktor Szary in Warsaw, Christian Lowe in Moscow and James Mackenzie in Rome; Writing by Paul Taylor and Robin Emmott; editing by David Stamp)