Leaders lambasted over low-profile EU job nominees

22nd November 2009, Comments 0 comments

At a summit in Brussels, the leaders appointed Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy Europe's first-ever president, and EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton the bloc's top diplomat.

Brussels -- European leaders faced flak Friday after choosing the low-profile Belgian premier and a British peer to lead a revamped EU, giving up on an ambition to appoint diplomatic heavy hitters.

At a summit in Brussels, the leaders appointed Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy Europe's first-ever president, and EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton the bloc's top diplomat.

There was much diplomatic back-slapping in Brussels late Thursday when the pair was chosen after a dinner summit but the international reaction was polite rather than effusive.

US President Barack Obama said the appointment of an EU president made Europe an "even stronger partner" for the United States.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called the nominations "another important step forward for European integration."

Neither had much to say about say about the two appointees.

"I think the two people themselves are not necessarily bad and they are probably two skilled politicians but as of today they lack the kind of international profile that one could have expected," said Marco Incerti of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

The US, China, India and others were watching "to assess whether the EU is prepared to finally take its responsibilities on the world stage, and I think in this respect it sends a signal that for the moment we are still a bit confused and we prefer to settle on the lowest common denominator," he added.

Professor Richard Whitman at London's Chatham House think-tank said that a decade of institutional navel-gazing, which finally resulted in the EU's Lisbon Treaty which creates the new jobs, "ended with the dampest of squibs."

"The EU member states have talked themselves into choosing two very competent, able, and -- frankly -- rather boring choices for these two new roles," he stressed, rather than the world-bestriding heavy hitters many had hoped for.

Baroness Ashton, a member of Britain's unelected House of Lords, defended her surprise appointment, saying she had "some experience" in foreign policy, plus the diplomatic and negotiating skills to get the job done.

Ashton acknowledged the job would be a challenge and that she was slightly surprised by the appointment, but backed her own CV.

"As a justice minister I did a lot of work with India, South Africa and right across Europe," she said.

"I describe myself as not being an ego on legs, but being able to go out there and actually make the deals."

Van Rompuy's appointment was greeted with a mixture of pride and consternation at home.

The Belgian press unanimously hailed the appointment but voiced concerns over its effect on the fragile domestic front.

"Yes!" headlined La Libre Belgique, "The Coronation" echoed Le Soir, while La Derniere Heure feted "A Belgian at the head of 460 million Europeans" and the Dutch-language De Standaard spoke of "a new star for Europe".

But the gushing sentiment was tempered by fears for how the departure of Van Rompuy, a quiet consensus-builder, could affect Belgian politics, perennially thrown into turmoil by the tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish community to the north and the poorer francophone region in the south.

While many observers said Van Rompuy and Ashton may turn out to be excellent EU leaders, few expected them to hit the ground running, particularly in places like the Middle East where relationships and trust are key.

"There's a gap that is going to be filled by the big member states," said Janis Emmanoulidis of the European Policy Centre.

"To give the job to a Belgian, however respectable, is to make it above all a facilitator's role," opined Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the Robert Schuman Foundation.

"It's a bad sign, but Europe has shown it is stronger than that," he added.


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