/ 20 November 2009

EU gets Belgian president and British foreign minister

Europe’s eight-year quest to establish a simpler and more democratic regime came to a dramatic climax on Thursday when the Belgian prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy, and Britain’s Cathy Ashton, were appointed as the two top officials embodying the new system.

In a surprise move that saw Gordon Brown abandon his campaign to have Tony Blair made first president of the European Council, Lady Ashton, the current European commissioner for trade, became Europe’s foreign minister or high representative for foreign and security policy.

Rompuy, a Flemish Christian Democrat, who had been Belgium’s prime minister for less than a year, became president of the European Council, the first permanent leader who will chair EU summits and represent the EU abroad.

Despite two weeks of dispute among EU governments over how to share out the posts, a consensus was reached quickly at a special summit dinner.

Ashton emerged surprised and beaming, clutching a bouquet of yellow flowers, to declare she would pursue a strategy of ”quiet diplomacy” as Europe’s first de facto foreign minister.

”That’s the style with which I will continue,” she said. The European commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, said of Ashton’s appointment: ”We believe it’s so important that Britain remains at the heart of our project.”

Diplomats and senior officials had forecast an acrimonious summit and possible failure after the Swedish prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, spent a fortnight, as current EU president, failing to construct a deal on the two jobs.

Britain proved to be the biggest sticking point since Brown’s insistence on Blair for the Van Rompuy job upset the political pact struck by Europe’s dominant Christian and Social Democrats to split the jobs between them.

That meant Blair could not be president since the job had to go to a Christian Democrat.

The logjam was broken when Brown yielded on condition that Britain obtained the foreign policy job in return.

Most countries were happy to agree since they see foreign policy as one area where Eurosceptic Britain brings ”added value” to the EU.

Despite the quick breakthrough , there will be criticism that Europe has failed to show much ambition in the two choices and has opted for the path of least resistance in the interests of an easy deal.

”It’s not very exciting,” said Andrew Duff, a Lib Dem MEP and ardent Europhile. ”Ashton will get a tough grilling in the European Parliament. But she’s very competent and will probably pass that with credit,” he added.

Ashton replaced Lord Mandelson in October last year as European trade commissioner and has impressed her peers in Brussels ever since through quiet diligence on a difficult brief.

Van Rompuy has been Belgium’s prime minister for less than a year and has also won plaudits for hauling his country back from the brink of disintegration amid acute tensions between its Dutch-speaking and French-speaking halves.

But questions will be raised about the pair’s relative inexperience and neither will be able to stand alongside US, Russian or Chinese leaders as peers and equals.

This was the central British argument in favour of Blair. But it cut little ice with mainstream Europeans who opted for a low-profile president who will focus on streamlining the work of European summits, promoting compromise and consensus.

Van Rompuy, speaking alternately in English, French and his native Dutch, insisted he had not asked to become the first permanent president of the European Council.

”But I accept it with enthusiasm and conviction,” he said. He promised to operate a ”two-track approach” to his job, prizing unity as the EU’s strength, but promoting diversity as its wealth.

”Every country should emerge victorious from a negotiation,” he said, underlining his reputation as a low-profile fixer.

Despite the doubts over Van Rompuy’s fitness for the post, France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, hailed the Belgian as ”one of the strongest personalities in European politics”. Brown claimed the Ashton appointment signalled a tremendous achievement for Britain.

Her appointment ”gives Britain a powerful voice both within the European council and the commission,” the prime minister said. ”It will ensure that Britain’s voice is very loud and clear. It will ensure that we will remain, as I wanted to be, at the heart of Europe.”

Despite strong Tory opposition to the Lisbon treaty creating the two posts, William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, signalled a future Conservative government’s cooperation.

He congratulated Ashton and Van Rompuy and said a Tory government would work with them ”in the British national interest”.

”We did not agree with the Lisbon treaty’s establishment of these posts. But they are now a fact,” Hague said.

Analysts said the happiest man in Brussels was probably Barroso, the commission chief, since the appointment of two relatively obscure figures represented a minimal threat to his authority.

The French and the Germans will also view the outcome with satisfaction.

They backed the Belgian Christian Democrat for president and Ashton’s appointment also leaves them clear to claim the big economic and financial portfolios in the commission team being put together by Barroso. – guardian.co.uk