AFP – Incoming EU president Herman Van Rompuy kept a low profile as the 27-nation bloc’s leaders faced flak for picking him and a little-known British peer to lead a revamped Europe on the world stage.
Van Rompuy, the outgoing Belgian premier chosen to become the first European Union president at a summit Thursday, met with his cabinet and King Albert II to start the process of finding a successor, without talking to the press.
However the world’s press were talking about him and the second member of the EU’s new dream team, incoming foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“The choice of two relative unknowns … dismayed those who wanted to give Europe more clout on the world stage,” the London Financial Times said.
“More likely the US president and Chinese premier will continue to work with Europe primarily through bilateral talks with Berlin, London, and Paris.”Related article: The EU’s new top jobs
The EU leaders chose Van Rompuy unanimously, and quicker than expected, at Thursday’s summit after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown dropped his insistence that his predecessor Tony Blair should be given the post, officially called the president of the European Council.
In exchange, Brown successfully put forward Britain’s EU Commissioner Ashton for the foreign policy supremo job, capping a dramatic rise for a woman who has never held elected office.
There was much back-slapping in Brussels after the pair were chosen, but international reaction was polite rather than effusive.
US President Barack Obama said the appointment of an EU president made Europe an “even stronger partner” for the United States.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called the nominations “another important step forward for European integration.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the appointment of the EU’s first president as a move to strengthen Europe’s efforts to bolster “peace, security, human rights and sustainable development.”
“The secretary-general looks forward to working closely with both Mr Van Rompuy and Ms Ashton in strengthening cooperation between the European Union and the United Nations,” a UN statement said.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wanted to see a “stronger, more efficient” EU, adding: “We want the European Union to react more quickly to global issues, that it speaks with one voice.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy assured that Van Rompuy “is not a default choice,” but “an extremely decisive man who knows where he’s going, with a perfect knowledge of European politics”.
Others detected a conscious decision by Europe’s leaders not to be left in the shade.
“Clearly they didn’t want two people who scared the bejasus out of them or were going to overshadow their egos,” said Hugo Brady, a senior fellow at the Centre for European Reform.Profile: Ashton’s new job
“But look, it’s a sign of the times. A turkey doesn’t vote for an early Christmas.”
Van Rompuy has been in power in Belgium for a year and won praise for keeping the feuding Flemish and French-speaking communities relatively content in his coalition government.
Baroness Ashton is currently EU trade commissioner and has swiftly built up a reputation as a quiet but effective negotiator.
She was more vocal Friday, insisting she was the best person for the new job of EU high representative for foreign and security policy.
“Over the next few months and years I aim to show that I am the best person for the job,” she told the BBC.
“I hope that my particular set of skills will show that in the end I am the best choice.”
She will get the chance when she assumes her new role on December 1, at the head of a huge new secretariat, when the Lisbon Treaty which creates both jobs comes into force.
EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, who recently received another five-year term, will then be able to put together the rest of the commission, from all EU member states, in which Ashton will be a vice-president.
While many observers said Van Rompuy and Ashton may turn out to be excellent choices, few expected them to hit the ground running, particularly in places like the Middle East where building trust is key.
“There’s a gap that is going to be filled by the big member states,” said Janis Emmanoulidis of the European Policy Centre.
Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the Robert Schuman Foundation, criticised the choice of Van Rompuy and Ashton.
“To give the job to a Belgian, however respectable, is to make it above all a facilitator’s role,” he said. “It’s a bad sign, but Europe has shown it is stronger than that.”