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EU gets new figurehead but could face old headaches

Brussels–The appointment of Van Rompuy, little known outside his own country, and British peer and EU Commissioner Cathy Ashton to the second new post of EU foreign policy supremo raised some eyebrows but also a few yawns.

"EU leaders have continued the job of weakening the EU institutions. They have followed their weak choice of Commission President with a bland council president and an unremarkable foreign affairs high representative," opined Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Green MEPs in the European Parliament.

He was referring respectively to Jose Manuel Barroso, who recently was granted a second term at the helm of the EU’s executive arm, as well as Van Rompuy and Ashton, who prides herself on quiet diplomacy.

"Europe is sinking to a low. The good news is that things can only get better," added Cohn-Bendit.

Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the long-established rotating EU presidency, spoke of a unanimous choice who would seek consensus.

"The idea is to have a leader of the (EU) council who actually gives room for everyone, who listens to everyone, who creates winners not losers," Reinfeldt said. "We have achieved that."

US President Barack Obama also welcomed the appointment, saying it would make Europe an "even stronger partner."

Europe hopes the creation of the new posts, set to come into being in January, might answer the ex US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s famous question; who to call when you want to speak to Europe?

But it doesn’t seem to have done so yet.

"I’m waiting anxiously for the first call," Van Rompuy told a press conference after he secured the post.

However Barroso, sharing the press platform with both new appointees, said after an embarrassing silence: "The Kissinger issue is now solved."

As Kissinger had been US secretary of state, Barroso said, "the secretary of state should call Cathy Ashton, she is our foreign minister."

"It will take time" to settle the situation with this new architecture, cautioned Janis Emmanouilidis, analyst at the European Policy Centre think-tank.

"It won’t be any easier after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty to identify the phone number, and there are a lot of potential frictions between the old and new posts," he added.

That’s because beside the EU council president and the high representative for foreign affairs there will still be commission chief Barroso, the European parliament — the EU’s only elected body — and the national rotating presidency, a system which will remain in place and chair several ministerial meetings.

Add to that mix the strong egos and policy difference between the national heads of state and government, and the phone numbers multiply.

Spain, Belgium and Hungary are the next presidency countries, ready to serve their stints after the current Swedish EU presidency ends on December 31.

The three nations have already said they have no intention of being sidelined and will indeed coordinate their efforts.

Van Rompuy will need all his consensus-building skills.

AFP/ Paul Harrington/ Expatica