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Belgian EU president takes office

BRUSSELS – "Today EU citizens are heading into a new era," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose nation retains the old-style rotating European Union presidency until the end of the year.

"Today is the first day for a more efficient, more modern and more democratic EU, for all citizens," he added in a statement as the treaty, which had a long and difficult gestation, finally took effect.

Van Rompuy, already on a tour of European capitals, made more of a low-key entrance into new Europe.

Speaking in Slovenia, one of three stops on Tuesday, he said his "key words will be continuity and coherence."

Later in Milan he promised to "listen carefully" and "take into account the interests and sensitivities of everyone."

He will certainly do more listening than orating until the new year, keen not to step on the toes of the Swedes.

Van Rompuy, who was previously Belgium’s prime minister, told journalists in Ljubljana that he would not make any political statements until 2010.

However, the softly-softly approach has not prevented him declaring himself a "European federalist," while assuring he is "not a fundamentalist," a comment bound to send shivers down eurosceptic spines.

Doubts remained that Van Rompuy and foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, a British peer and formerly EU trade commissioner, were the dream ticket to lead Europe and stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the United States and China.

Europe’s first president will be "more of a ‘chairman president’ than a leader president’," said Thierry Chopin of the Robert Schuman Foundation think tank.

Indeed it may suit some of the bigger EU member states not to have a political heavyweight presiding over them.

The treaty, drawn up to replace the aborted EU constitution, is designed to boost the bloc’s global standing and streamline the institutions which represent half a billion people in 27 countries.

"The Treaty of Lisbon puts citizens at the centre of the European project," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement.

Now "we can focus all our energy on delivering what matters to our citizens," he added, in reference to the years of institutional navel-gazing which ended with the treaty coming into effect.

The treaty will also reinforce the EU parliament’s role and cut the number of national vetoes on European policy.

But most attention is on the two new top jobs, the immediate and visible effects of the treaty which came into being at midnight (2300 GMT Monday).

The 27 EU heads of state and government chose Van Rompuy for the top job at a summit last month, after rejecting a British bid to have ex-PM Tony Blair installed.

His post, the President of the European Council, is for a two-and-a-half year term renewable once, giving the bloc both a human face and a more stable presidency than the current system of rotating the EU summit chair between nations on a six-monthly basis.

Ashton will be a quasi foreign minister for Europe, with a larger role than her predecessor Javier Solana and a vast new diplomatic corps — a major task for someone with no foreign policy experience and who has never been elected to office.

"As respectable and nice as she might be, she doesn’t seem to match the ideal profile of a European foreign minister," the Schuman Foundation report opined.

"She doesn’t know the diplomatic issues and has never held a major ministerial position at home. In truth, she appears to have been appointed by default," it added.

She has a lot to do to be able to stand up to Paris, London or Berlin, national diplomats said.

Both new EU leaders were to attend a celebration dinner in Lisbon later Tuesday.

After that Ashton’s first real task could be a baptism of fire at a preliminary hearing in front of the European parliament on Wednesday, where some Euro MPs plan tough questioning.

Paul Harrington/AFP/Expatica