Thursday, November 19, 2009

Race is Over

So the results are in and the betting is over. The European Union has chosen its two top officials who will seek to raise the profile of the EU around the world. Both are seen as low-key consensual figures.

The new President of the Council of the European Union is Belgian PM Herman van Rompuy – a widely expected appointment, vigorously supported by France and Germany. He is a centre-right politician who has strongly supported the idea of expanded role for the EU in its member nations and the need for an EU tax to be part of each countries tax regime.

Mr Van Rompuy is seen as a consensus-builder and has been described as a pragmatic rather than a charismatic figure. During his time as budget minister in Belgium's Christian Democrat-led government, he took a tough stance on balancing the economic books, drastically reducing the country's public debt.

Britain played a smart card during the meetings on Thursday. Dropping its support for Tony Blair and persuading the seven-strong socialist group of governments to back EU Trade Commissioner Baroness Catherine Ashton for the foreign policy position, Prime Minister Gordon Brown may well have broken the logjam and vaulted a British candidate right into one of Europe's top jobs.

Lady Ashton was a junior Minister in the British Labour Government until 2007, when Brown appointed her Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council and elevated to the cabinet. In 2008 she was appointed Trade Commissioner for the EU, succeeding Peter Mandelson who left the EU to join the Brown cabinet and the House of Lords. She has never been elected to public office, having secured all her political roles from the benches of the Lords, to which she was appointed in 1999. She is married to journalist Peter Kellner, and has two children.

Lady Ashton is a surprise appointment. She has no substantial background in foreign affairs, except as they relate to trade issues (and this experience can be counted in months rather than years) and hardly any exposure within the EU. Appointing an unknown is clearly a side-deal aimed at appeasing a faction within the union. She will have a seat as vice-president of the European Commission, as well as a budget worth billions of euros and a new diplomatic service of up to 5,000 people. Many see the position as equivalent to that held by Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.

It will be interesting to watch the leaders of the twenty seven nations rationalizing their choices over the next few days and then watch how these two roles emerge. So the race is over, now wait for the fireworks to begin.

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