Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009
EU foreign head dismisses critics

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News

Rubik's cube with photos of Herman Van Rompuy (left), Jose Manuel Barroso and Catherine Ashton
Critics say the results of EU diplomacy are a classic "fudge"

It turned out to be a big anti-climax.

Far from the EU choosing world-bestriding figures to carry its ambitions into the halls of power from Washington to Moscow to Beijing, it selected two almost unknowns to fill the new posts created by the Lisbon Treaty.

And selection is a better word than election to describe the secretive process involved. The Vatican could not have done it better.

Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, a Flemish Christian Democrat, will become President of the European Council. His first task will be to indicate which of the many pronunciations of his name he favours.

Baroness Cathy Ashton, formerly a Labour Party member of the British House of Lords and latterly EU trade commissioner, will be the beefed-up foreign policy representative.

It is beefed up because the current job (held by the industrious Javier Solana) will now also control the EU's multi-billion euro foreign aid budget.

Baroness Ashton will also have a task establishing her name.

British manoeuvre

Those who originally drew up the EU constitution had hoped for something bigger.

By accepting Mr Van Rompuy, a well-known federalist, France and Germany are sending a signal that the European integration process is not over

The foreign policy job was supposed to carry the title "foreign minister". The British put a stop to that grandeur.

It is a classic manoeuvre of British diplomacy that a job whose title the British opposed should end up in the hands of a Brit.

People in Europe seem to accept that. After all, the British still have a long reach and get on with the Americans.

As for the presidency of the European Council, the hope of the framers was that this post, currently revolving every six months through the member states, should develop into a kind of EU spokesperson. The new president will be in office for two-and-a-half years, renewable once.

The president of the European Council has influence but little power and certainly no legislative power.

The power to legislate on EU-wide issues lies with the ministers from the member states in the sectoral councils (trade, agriculture etc), together with the European Parliament.

But the phrase used in the Lisbon Treaty, that the president should "drive" the work of the Council, does contain within it hopes of a worldwide presence, because the Council often make statements on worldwide issues.

Art of compromise

So what do these choices tell us about the EU's alleged ambitions?

Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton in Brussels, 19 November 2009
With these choices the EU's real ambitions are under scrutiny

They show, first of all, how difficult ambitions are to achieve in the face of competing interests in which the lowest common denominator principle often applies.

Satisfying these interests (as in the UK - blocked over its choice of Tony Blair - agreeing to Mr Van Rompuy in exchange for others agreeing to Baroness Ashton) becomes the name of the game, as it usually is in the EU.

It also shows us, perhaps, that the big beasts of European governments - led by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel - are not too displeased about not having rivals on the world stage.

They are content for the new president to do the EU's internal business and for the foreign policy representative to work quietly away, relying more on the EU's combined power and less on a loud voice.


It also tells us something else.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Catherine Ashton on 19 November 2009 in Brussels, Belgium

By accepting Mr Van Rompuy, a federalist, France and Germany are sending a signal that the European integration process is not over.

There are aspects of Lisbon - the chance for a group of member states to integrate further in selected areas on their own, for example - for which he could be the flag-bearer.

The work of the European Council, the thrice-yearly meetings of heads of state and government, is often dominated by sorting out internal wrangles and taking the integration agenda forward.

That aspect seems to have helped determine the selection, and could prove significant.

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