Unknown duo chosen as new faces of Europe
Two virtual unknowns have been chosen as the new faces of Europe: the Belgian Prime Minister and a British Commissioner clinched the prized two top jobs in the European Union.
Tipped for days as the favourite, Herman van Rompuy now becomes the EU’s first President, beating the Dutch Prime Minister and Tony Blair to the post. But it was the appointment of an even lesser-known figure to the international role of EU High Representative that was the surprise rabbit out of the hat during Thursday night’s summit.
It had been expected that the popular but low-key Belgian premier would be offset by a ‘big hitter’ for the post of de-facto foreign minister, who is set to become Europe’s face on the world stage.
But Catherine Ashton’s name barely resonates even within Brussels, where she has been Commissioner for Trade for over a year. Unlike other female heavyweights like Nellie Kroes, Baroness Ashton is so anonymous that security guards reportedly asked for her ID when she tried to enter the building during the summit. She will head up a new EU foreign ministry made up of 3,000 diplomats with 200 EU embassies and a fat wallet for peacekeeping missions.
Although EU leaders predictably plastered smiles on their faces after their three-course supper and roundly endorsed both candidates, they immediately had to fend off accusations by journalists that they had plumped for the lower-common denominators. After five years of to-and-froing over these new posts, created by the Lisbon Treaty, there was a tangible mood of deflation at the European Council building when the names were finally announced.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke volumes when she said: “I belong to those who think that people can grow into their role. We were driven by the search for consensus.”
The French President described Herman van Rompuy as the “most formidable man around the EU table” and praised his intellect and abilities as a compromise-builder, referring to his success in keeping Belgium’s bickering Flemish and Walloon politicians from one anothers’ throats. But Nicholas Sarkozy, like everyone else, struggled to find words for Ashton, whose abilities remain largely unknown. Until the very last moments, even British officials had written her off as an “a very unlikely choice” given her lack of profile in Westminster, where she had held several senior posts but has left little impression.
EU leaders made it clear between the lines that she had been the ideal consolation prize for the British, who had pushed doggedly for Tony Blair as President until the bitter end and who needed a sweetener to offset the bitter pill of a Belgian substitute. Rising calls for a woman in one of the top jobs also boosted her case.
Challenged on her lack of international experience, even Baroness Ashton fought back by saying “judge me on my actions”. But she inadvertently played down her professional pedigree when she said she’d “almost resolved trade row over bananas” in her function as EU trade chief.
“Being the first will be a challenge. I was the first woman British Commissioner, the first woman Trade Commissioner, so I am also proud to be the first woman High Representative of Europe. But… I promise to do what I can to ensure that… I will do the best that I can for Europe,” she added.
The evening was a blow for the Dutch leader, Jan Peter Balkenende, who had been seen as a front-runner for the post of President last month. But he showed no bitterness, repeating that he had “never been asked” for the role.
“I know who these nominations work and how international consensus builds. I am delighted that we had a unanimous decision, without problems and without needed to resort to a vote. It’s exactly the kind of outcome we needed for Europe.”
But the downward mood was offset by Van Rompuy, who switched seamlessly between French, English and Dutch and who peppered his press conference with his characteristic witticisms. “How do I feel today? I’ll let you know when I write my memoirs!” he told reporters.
He also tacitly spelled out that he would preside as a chairman-like figure, rather than a superstar president with his own ideas. “There’s been a lot of discussion over the profile of the President of the European Council. But one profile is possible: one of dialogue, unity and action. The Council’s image will be shaped not by words but by actions,” Van Rompuy said.
However, many Europhiles will see this “historic night” as a missed opportunity for the EU. “It’s the night when we became dwarfs, instead of giants,” said one diplomat.
Radio Netherlands World/ Vanessa Mock