Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009
EU foreign head dismisses critics


Jose Manuel Barroso presents a Rubik's cube to Fredrik Reinfeldt

With 27 countries to satisfy, political and geographical faultlines to bridge, and competing visions of what the positions should entail, deciding who would take the EU's two new top jobs was never going to be easy.

The President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, likened the task to solving a Rubik's Cube puzzle, as he congratulated Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on steering the EU towards an agreement, without the bust-ups that often occur when top EU jobs are being handed out.

So what were the criteria that Herman van Rompuy as President of the European Council, and Baroness Catherine Ashton as High Representative for Foreign Affairs, had to meet?

1. Left v Right. The new president had to be from the centre-right, the new foreign affairs supremo had to be from the centre-left - reflecting the positions of the two main blocs in this year's European election (first and second respectively).

2. Chairman v President. Germany preferred the idea of selecting consensus-builders rather than big-hitting politicians who would "stop the traffic" in foreign countries. Other countries agreed, including Sweden, which was in charge of steering the negotiations towards a conclusion. These first two criteria effectively put paid to the chances of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair becoming President of the Council. They worked in favour of Mr Van Rompuy, who has skilfully kept a lid on his own country's centrifugal tendencies, and Lady Ashton, who is respected in Brussels as a good negotiator.

Rubik cube
Mr Barroso likened the selection to a 3D puzzle

3. Big country v Small country.

Germany and France opted to campaign for a Belgian Council president - that is, someone from a small country - with enthusiastic support from the small countries themselves (which are keen prevent the big countries running the EU as their own club). The President of the Commission, Mr Barroso, is also from a small country. The new foreign affairs chief therefore had to be from a big country. Germany and France were not putting anyone forward from their own countries for the foreign affairs job (which would have meant picking someone from the opposition) so the field was narrowed - another point working in Lady Ashton's favour.

4. North v South / East v West. The EU aims for a geographical spread among the top jobs. The President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, is from the East, so that box is ticked. Mr Barroso is from the South. That left the two new jobs open for candidates from the North.

5. Man v Woman. The EU regularly faces criticism for failing to practise what it preaches on gender equality, so there was a powerful case for selecting a woman for one of the new jobs. "I think there was a strong push to have at least one woman in a senior position," Lady Ashton told the BBC.

6. Federalism v National sovereignty. The decision to select consensus-builders rather than charismatic politicians who would lead from the front (see point 2 above) will have pleased leaders opposed to any further centralisation of power in Brussels. Mr Van Rompuy appears to be a far less ardent Euro-federalist than the last Belgian contender for the post of President of the Commission, Guy Verhofstadt (whose candidacy was vetoed by Tony Blair). He is an admirer of the United States, and struck a careful balance in his acceptance speech, emphasising both the unity and the diversity of the EU. "Even if our unity is our strength," he said, "our diversity remains our wealth."

7. Chemistry. The foreign affairs supremo has one foot in the Council - the body which groups together the governments of the 27 member states - and one in the Commission. He or she is, in fact, automatically a vice-president of the Commission. This means that the ability to get on well with Mr Barroso is a definite advantage - and Barroso is not only reported to admire Lady Ashton's performance as Trade Commissioner, they have a warm working relationship.

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