Van Rompuy, Ashton tick right boxes in complex geographic, political web

16:02, November 20, 2009      

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The European Union's decision to pick a pair of relatively inexperienced, political lightweights for its new top jobs shows that Europe's internal politics weigh more heavily with the bloc's leadership than the EU's much-touted ambitions to play a top-flight role in global diplomacy.

Herman Van Rompuy, first president of the European Council, is well-versed in the intricacies of Belgium's domestic politics, and Catherine Ashton, the EU's new de facto foreign minister, has spent a year working on anti-dumping rules and banana quotas as the bloc's chief trade negotiator.

However, their curriculum vitae show a telling lack of involvement in the Middle East, Iranian nuclear issue, Afghanistan or any of the other major world issues where the EU increasingly seeks to flex its muscles.

That gap means the EU foreign policy profile will likely remain low, with major member nations like Britain, France and Germany overshadowing the union's collective role.

Van Rompuy will become president of the European Council for two-and-a-half-years after spending less than a year as Belgian prime minister. Before that his career highlight was as his country's budget minister.

A British baroness, Ashton was appointed as the EU trade commissioner just over a year ago. She had previously been a junior minister in Britain's justice department and leader of the House of Lords, Britain's unelected upper parliamentary chamber.

She was not a major figure even in British politics and has never been elected to high office, but as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Vice President of the European Commission, she'll effectively be the EU's foreign minister.

"I've had a number of positions where negotiation has been at the heart," Ashton said in response to criticism of her lack of experience. "Judge me by what I do."

Van Rompuy, 62, barely known outside Belgium until he was catapulted to the premiership as an emergency replacement when a financial scandal brought down the previous prime minister last year. He was not elected to the post, but has gained some kudos for defusing a crisis between French- and Dutch-speaking politicians.

Both can owe their sudden elevation to two of the highest political positions in the union of 27 nations and 500 million people to the fact that they done little to annoy any of the EU members' heads of state and government who gathered to make the choice on Thursday.

And they ticked the right boxes in the complex web of geographical, political and gender criteria which guided the leader's decision.

The new positions were created after eight years of long negotiations to give the EU a new treaty designed to streamline its complicated decision-making process and bolster its position in the world.

The president of the EU Council was initially designed to be the "face" of the EU, who would represent the union at high-level international meetings and be a permanent chairman of the regular summit meetings that guide the bloc's policies.

Britain's Tony Blair had often been tipped to get the job, reviving a career that made him a household name around the world during a tumultuous 10 years as prime minister.

However, several EU national leaders became concerned that he would become too dominant a figure, casting them in the shade. Others thought he had shown himself too pro-American during the 2003 Iraq war and insufficiently European in keeping Britain out of the euro-currency zone.

In return for the others snubbing Blair, the British balked at the rival candidacies from the prime ministers of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In the end however, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was tempted into backing Van Rompuy in return by Ashton's ascension to the foreign policy job.

The 52-year-old baroness was helped by mounting accusations that the upper echelons of the EU were becoming a male-only club and by the fact that she's a Socialist.

That is supposed to balance the center-right pair of Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, the former Portuguese prime minister, who holds the other EU top job, the president of the European Commission.

Barroso may be the big winner from Thursday's decision. He is by far the most experienced and highest profile of the three and is the only one to have regularly supped at the world's top tables alongside leaders of other big countries.

Barroso is hoping to now emerge as the real face of the EU both inside Europe and on the wider world.

Ashton will be Barroso's sidekick as vice-president of the EU's executive body. In her 5-year-mandate she will oversee how the bloc spends its annual 7 billion euros (10.5 billion U.S. dollars)foreign aid budget and head a new 5,000 strong EU diplomatic corps.

Both new positions are created by the Lisbon Treaty which is due to come into force on Dec. 1 after an eight-year gestation period. It was designed with the aim of streamlining the way the EU does business and rising its international process.

Van Rompuy's supporters said his discreet, unassuming style will enable him to broker deals among the 27 EU leaders without ruffling the feathers of the bigger egos among them. Ashton's backers are hoping she can take the same qualities into international negotiations.

However, she will first have to convince the European Parliament that she has sufficient experience for the job when she faces confirmation hearings in January. Van Rompuy does not need parliamentary approval.

His appointment to the EU job creates a power vacuum in Belgium, which risks reviving the linguistic rivalries that frequently threaten to divide the nation of 10 million.

Meanwhile, European recruitment drive continues as member governments maneuver for the remaining 25 posts beside Barroso and Ashton on the European Commission. France and Germany are seeking powerful economic positions in return for keeping out of the fight for the top jobs.

Source: Xinhua
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