By Luke Baker
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The race to be the next head of the European Commission, a job with sweeping powers over policy affecting 500 million Europeans, became a little clearer on Tuesday with two of the EU's main political groups now proposing single candidates.
ALDE, the alliance of Europe's Liberal parties and the third largest bloc in the European Parliament, has decided to back Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium, as its candidate for Commission president.
The decision avoids a divisive showdown between Verhofstadt and Finland's Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner for economic affairs, who was also vying for the job. Rehn will now be ALDE's candidate for one of the other top EU posts, which will be determined after elections to the European Parliament in May.
The Socialists and Democrats, the second-largest group in the 750-seat parliament, have already decided that Germany's Martin Schulz, the current president of the European Parliament, will be their candidate to head the Commission.
The largest political grouping, the center-right European People's Party, will choose its lead candidate - known by the German term Spitzenkandidat - at a congress in Dublin on March 6-7, with four or five names in the running.
The next Commission president will take office for a five-year term from November 2014, replacing Portugal's Jose Manuel Barroso, who has run the institution since 2004.
BIG JOB SHAKE-UP
For decades, elections to the European Parliament have largely been a secondary affair, with turnout low and the institution not seen as having much influence.
But that has changed since the introduction of a new EU treaty in 2009, which gave the parliament more say in policy making and a role in determining who should become the next Commission president, a powerful decision-making job.
The Commission president oversees a "college" of commissioners, one from each of the 28 member states.
The Commission is responsible for proposing EU legislation and acts as the EU's financial and competition regulator. It also leads trade negotiations with non-EU countries and coordinates foreign and security policy, among other powers.
Whichever group emerges as the largest bloc in parliament following the May 22-25 elections is expected to have first claim on the presidency post, although the choice also has to be approved by EU leaders and negotiations will be intense.
With anti-EU and protest parties on the far-left and far-right expected to do well this time around because of voter frustration after years of economic crisis, the elections have taken on far more importance than in previous years.
The Socialists and Democrats are hoping to topple the EPP as the largest bloc in the parliament, although if the vote is very fractured, it may be impossible for anyone group to hold a majority, increasing the likelihood of a 'grand coalition'.
Among the names mentioned for the EPP 'Spitzenkandidat' are former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker; France's Michel Barnier, the commissioner for financial regulation; Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny; Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
Beyond the presidency of the Commission, the other top EU jobs include the president of the European Council, the commissioner for foreign and security policy, the commissioner for economic affairs and the European Parliament president.
(Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Charlie Dunmore)