Belgian-British duo wins race for EU's top jobs
Constant Brand, Associated Press Writer – Thu Nov 19, 5:43 pm ET
BRUSSELS – After years of effort the European Union named its first full-time president and powerful foreign policy chief on Thursday — but handed the jobs to two little-known compromise figures instead of global heavy hitters.
The choice by national leaders behind closed doors broke a stalemate in choppy, often pained negotiations intended to give Europe a voice on the world stage commensurate with its economic heft. That hope was apparently dashed by a desire for consensus instead of a potentially divisive figure who could have overshadowed leaders of nations such as France and Germany.
Belgian Premier Herman Van Rompuy (vahn rohm-POY) — a soft-spoken technocrat who shuns the public eye and has written haikus about European unity — will be the EU's new president. EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton of Britain, recognized by few in her home country and never elected to public office, was named foreign policy chief.
Van Rompuy and Ashton are meant to give the EU a bigger role on issues such as climate change, terrorism and trade amid the rise of China, Brazil and India. They were chosen from about 10 candidates, some, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, boasting more eye-catching backgrounds.
Britain's Labour government pushed for Blair but France and Germany scotched him and smaller EU nations loathed the idea largely because of his strong support for the Iraq war, a position that angered many Europeans
The compromise choice of two low-profile figures is "too much" and "sends a bad signal" to Europe's trade partners, said Marco Incerti, an analyst at the European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank.
"Most people in Europe have never even heard of Herman Van Rompuy or Catherine Ashton, yet here they are to represent us in the global arena. Surely Europe can do better than this," said Lorraine Mullally, director of Open Europe, a British group skeptical of European integration.
Van Rompuy spent most of his career in the background of Belgian politics, becoming prime minister in 2008 after his predecessor got mired in a linguistic dispute between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians.
He created his biggest stir on the EU stage to date by reading one of his haikus at a press conference last month.
"Three waves. Roll into port together. The trio is home," read the poem, whose subject matter was policy cooperation among Belgium, Spain and Hungary in 2010.
Van Rompuy pledged to be "discreet" in his new job, which will entail organizing the EU's four or five annual summits and liaise between the EU leaders. He said climate change and Europe's high unemployment will be key concerns in the years ahead.
Ashton, 53, has barely caused a ripple during her year as EU trade chief and has little foreign experience. She signed a trade pact with South Korea, worked to revive the stalled global negotiations at the World Trade Organization and defrost trade relations with the U.S. after President George W. Bush left office.
She defended her limited international experience and said she was proud that the powerful new post had gone to a woman. The job combines two existing ones, giving her more powers than current foreign policy chief Javier Solana. She must still be approved by the European Parliament and will take office next year.
"Am I an ego on legs? No I'm not." she said. "Judge me on what I do and I think you'll be pleased and you'll be proud of me."
The EU president and foreign minister posts were created by an EU reform treaty that takes effect Dec. 1. It is vague on what the EU president is supposed to do, other than encourage more European integration.
The presidency was initially seen as the bigger job of the two but that has shifted.
The EU foreign minister gets a say over the EU's annual euro7 billion ($10.5 billion) foreign aid budget, will head a new 5,000-strong EU diplomatic corps and travel the globe to represent the EU's interests.
To get to this point, EU leaders pushed the Irish to vote on the reform treaty twice, ignored French and Dutch rejection of an earlier EU constitution and railroaded the Czech president into agreeing to the treaty despite strong opposition.
Swedish Premier Frederik Reinfeldt was at pains to get candidates that struck the right balance between big countries and small, rich and poor, east and west, socialists and conservatives.
Ashton won the foreign policy brief after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and left-leaning leaders from Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia, Portugal and Austria decided to put her name forward.
Van Rompuy, a 62-year-old Christian Democrat , was put forward for the president's job by Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt who chaired Thursday's summit, diplomats said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown promoted Ashton as foreign policy chief after he realized Blair was not getting the backing from other EU leaders as president.
Besides objecting to Blair over Iraq, smaller EU nations expressed the desire a president from a country that uses the EU's common euro currency and participates in its passport-free travel zone. Britain has opted out of those EU projects.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton, Robert Wielaard, Aoife White and Barbara Schaeder contributed to this report.