Eight years of soul-searching and intricate manoeuvres to revamp the EU as a more powerful player in world affairs culminated yesterday (19 November) with the appointment of two discrete politicians, who pledged to profess consensus-building and quiet diplomacy.

At an extraordinary summit which took place over dinner, EU heads of state and government unanimously backed Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the first permanent EU president and current Trade Commissioner Baroness Catherine Ashton as High Representative for Foreign Affairs. 

The appointments highlight the European Union's reluctance to choose a high-profile president who can see eye-to-eye with other world leaders. 

Last month, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband endorsed former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for the EU president role, saying the candidate needed to be able to "stop the traffic in Beijing and Moscow". 

But the choice of Van Rompuy highlights the Union's preference for a low-key chairman and consensus-builder rather than a more high-profile political leader. 

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown admitted that "Tony Blair was our first choice for the job," but welcomed the fact that Catherine Ashton had been chosen as foreign affairs chief. 

The making of a president and foreign minister 

The first news of EU leaders' decision broke out much earlier than anticipated, at around 6:00 PM, when the dinner had only just started. 

British diplomats were the first to announce that the candidacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair for the EU president post had been replaced with consensual backing for Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton as High Representative for Foreign Affairs. 

Brown threw his weight behind Ashton in the afternoon, when socialist EU prime ministers met internally to coordinate their positions before the summit. 

A non-written agreement between EU leaders stipulated that should the Council president come from a centre-right affiliated party, such as Van Rompuy, the High Representative should come from the ranks of the centre-left. 

The road to Ashton's appointment was cleared when the socialists rejected the candidacy of former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema on the grounds that he did not come from a socialist government. 

By contrast, Van Rompuy's appointment was not a surprise, as diplomats said more than two weeks ago that he was the only candidate to attract consensus among the 27 EU leaders (EurActiv 02/11/09). 

Catherine Ashton's name was only mentioned in the last few days, as UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband rejected the offer and vowed to stay in national politics. 

Looking for a woman 

The choice of Ashton, who has limited international experience and has never held elected office, was also favourable given efforts to seek a gender balance in the EU institutions. 

A number of other female candidates, among whom the most prominent appeared to be former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, were all competing in the higher category of Council president (EurActiv 17/11/09). 

Ashton arrived at the Council after dinner just in time for the family photo. She also attended the press conference. The video screens of the Council provided an insight into the atmosphere at level 80, where the leaders meet. While Van Rompuy and Ashton were being congratulated, the cameras also pictured Javier Solana, the EU's current High Representative for Foreign Affairs, comforting Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who was a candidate for the top EU seat. 

Solana will now step down in favour of Ashton, who still needs to be approved by a vote in the European Parliament, together with the entire Barroso II team. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the High Representative is also a European Commission vice-president.

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