After months of speculation as to who would be Europe’s first president, the EU’s top leaders emerged from their smoke-filled room and announced that Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy was their man. And that trade commissioner Catherine Ashton was their woman, tabbed to head up the Commission’s foreign policy.
The AP‘s Constant Brand sums up the excitement:
EU leaders on Thursday handed the European Union’s top new jobs to two little-known compromise figures — Belgium’s prime minister and the EU’s trade commissioner — dashing hopes of those who wanted to raise the continent’s global profile.
The choice caps years of choppy efforts to give a united Europe a voice on the world stage commensurate with its economic heft. The EU leaders agreed on trade commissioner Catherine Ashton of Britain as the EU’s new foreign policy chief and Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as its president, diplomats said. But their appointments suggested the need for compromise outweighed the desire for big names like Tony Blair, the former British leader who was once considered a leading contender for the presidential job.
While the EU president was initially seen as the bigger job, much attention has shifted to the foreign minister, who gets a say over the bloc’s annual euro7 billion ($10.5 billion) foreign aid budget and will head a new 5,000-strong EU diplomatic corps.
Ashton, who has never been elected to public office and is largely unknown outside Britain, had seemed an unlikely choice. She won the foreign policy brief after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and left-leaning leaders from Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia, Portugal and Austria decided to put her name forward.
Ashton, 53, was a junior minister and leader of the House of Lords in 2007 and had a history as an anti-nuclear weapons campaigner. She has barely caused a ripple during her year as EU trade chief and has no known foreign policy experience. She signed a trade pact with South Korea, stalled global negotiations at the World Trade Organization and helping defrost trade relations with the U.S. after President George W. Bush left office.
The Economist‘s Charlemagne, writing two days before this afternoon’s announcement, anticipated my initial reaction: “a decade of institutional wrangling for that?”
And my second reaction, too:
The world is not waiting for the appointment of the EU’s first double hatted foreign policy representative. The world is busy, and is dimly aware that Europe has finished with its latest treaty and is about to appoint some new top figures. The world will check who those new figures are, and if they appear credible and impressive, will take note. If they are unknown figures, appointed after hours of horse-trading dominated by considerations about balancing north and south, gender, left and right, big and small, new and old, central and peripheral etc, the world will shrug and walk away.
This is not meant as a knock on Rompuy, who for all I know is a phenomenal leader and a hell of a guy. But the fact that I follow Europe rather closely and don’t have a strong opinion about him one way or the other says quite a lot.
A Tony Blair would have been a bold stroke, signaling to the world that Europe was serious about being viewed as a global power rather than a gaggle of countries, some more notable than others. But, given how controversial the former British premier is on the Continent, most of us realized that he was an unrealistic candidate. And if a Brit couldn’t have the job, neither could a German or Frenchman. But what about former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga? She’s a charismatic leader and outside the Great Power fray.
Instead, we wound up with a compromise slate unknown outside the most wonkish circles. As Foreign Policy assistant editor Annie Lowrey so aptly put it, “The picks have a symmetry thought necessary in Europe: Rompuy and Ashton are male and female, from a small country and a large one, conservative and liberal.”
The Center for American Progress’s Matt Yglesias predicts that Ashton will actually be more powerful than Rompuy, given that “it’s always been not-totally-clear what the president’s job is” whereas, “The EU is a funny kind of entity, such that lots of its jobs don’t matter, but EU monetary policy (and hence the ECB president) and EU trade policy (and hence the EU Trade Commissioner) matter a lot.” Lowrey agrees, adding, “Ashton will control thousands of civil servants and a large budget, and will have powers to set policy priorities for the EU. It is unclear just what Rompuy’s staffing and responsibilities will be.”
Of course, as I argued yesterday, “Going with a no-name candidate would virtually assure that the EU president remains largely a figurehead, subservient to the heads of the member countries.” I’ll be happy to be proven wrong on that score. But my strong guess is that the people who chose Dupuy did so fully expecting that outcome.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.