EU chooses Belgian premier as first EU president

Low-profile Briton is ne

Catherine Ashton 248.88 (photo credit: )
Catherine Ashton 248.88
(photo credit: )
Minutes after being named the EU's first full-time president Thursday, Belgian Premier Herman van Rompuy said, "I'm anxiously waiting for the first phone call." The comment referred to a longtime American lament that US officials have no one to call in Europe to hear what their allies are thinking. The choice of Van Rompuy as EU president and EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton as a powerful new EU foreign minister is supposed to change that. Yet the choice dashed hopes of those who wanted to raise Europe's global profile by appointing bigger-name candidates to give a united Europe a voice in the world commensurate with its economic heft. 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. Marco Incerti, an analyst at the European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based thinktank, spoke of "a bad signal" to Europe's trade partners. "We have two low-profile figures. Two is too much. The world was waiting for the EU to pick out a person which would answer the famous question of who you would call in Europe," said Incerti. He said Ashton lacked experience to be a factor in the international standoff with Iran over Teheran's nuclear ambitions and efforts to get Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks. "That particular post really requires expertise in the field of foreign policy which Catherine Ashton does not have, nor does she have any networks abroad." Stratfor, an online publisher of geopolitical intelligence based in Austin, Texas, was no more charitable. It said Van Rompuy's "lack of international visibility ... goes against what Germany and France want in an EU president." But coming from a small EU nation he "will be amenable to their influence, therefore guaranteeing that Berlin and Paris will set the agenda through his presidency." Van Rompuy, a 62-year-old Christian Democrat, 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 US 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 €7 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.