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.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who conducted the consultations on behalf of the Swedish EU Presidency, said EU leaders had found what they had been searching for.
"Through consultations, and I've been very thorough - I'm Swedish, this has been also what the member states have been looking for [...] That's what we have been seeking, that is what we have achieved," Reinfeldt said.
Reading from prepared notes, Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy thanked EU leaders for honouring him, adding that the had never tried to obtain the top job that had been attributed to him. He said he would assume his new duties from 1 January 2010 and that he would maintain a press silence in the coming weeks.
Asked whether he was glad to escape the complicated Belgian political context, in which he proved to be a skilled troubleshooter, Van Rompuy showed humility, saying that this was the kind of question he would one day answer in his memoirs.
"But now I feel like writing them," he added.
Van Rompuy also displayed humour. When a journalist invoked the Kissinger question and asked which of the four leaders sitting at the table (Van Rompuy, Reinfeldt, Ashton and Barroso) the US president should call, there was silence, as though the four could not decide who should answer. The silence was broken by Van Rompuy, who said in English: "We're anxiously waiting for the first call."
Challenged by journalists over her apparently modest CV, Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton insisted that she had always been a negotiator, and gave examples of her current work, such as progress achieved under the difficult Doha round.
"Judge me on what I do, and I think you will be pleased and proud of me," Ashton said.
UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said after the summit that the choice of Catherine Ashton "gives Britain a powerful voice both within the European Council and the Commission".
"It will ensure that Britain's voice is very loud and clear. It will ensure that we will remain, as I want us to be, at the heart of Europe […] In this role, Cathy Ashton will have a unique role over the next five years in shaping the global Europe of the future," Brown said, adding that she will represent Europe on the world stage in negotiations with the United States, China, India, Russia and other countries.
"And she will be a vice-president of the European Commission, giving her a leading voice on all the Commission's proposals," he added, saying she will hold a job that is second only to Barroso. "Ashton's appointment shows that Britain is leading the way in extending representation to women," Brown added.
Brown said that his predecessor Tony Blair was his government's first choice until it became clear that the European centre-right parties wanted one of their own members as president. Van Rompuy is a true diplomat and statesman, and is a conciliator and negotiatior with a reputation for "integrity and resolve," Brown stated.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Van Rompuy as "one of the strongest personalities in European politics". "He is a man who knows exactly where he's going. If you think he's inexperienced and too soft, you might be in for a surprise," he said.
European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek welcomed the two appointments, saying Europe's "long internal institutional debate" was now "almost over" and that the EU would "focus more now on the crucial issues facing our citizens".
Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament, welcomed Ashton's nomination as a victory for the socialists. "We fought hard to achieve this goal for a member of our political family: we actually explicitly linked this job to the renewal of Mr. Barroso's mandate," Schulz said.
Responding to critics who point to Ashton's limited experience in international affairs, Schulz said: "In the House of Lords, she managed to secure Britain's support for the Lisbon Treaty, showing genuine negotiating skills."
"As commissioner for trade, she has acquired experience in very complex international negotiations. I have no doubt that she will perform her new duties with distinction," he added.
Joseph Daul, chairman of the centre-right EPP group in the European Parliament, welcomed the "white smoke" that appeared over the roof of the Council.
"The new president is from the EPP family, therefore confirming its position as the leading political family in Europe," he said. "The EPP Group has always worked for a strong Europe with strong institutions, faithful to Jean Monnet's principles. My group now expects Catherine Ashton and Herman Van Rompuy to show strength, in their respective roles, in service of the general European interest."
Congratulating Van Rompuy and Ashton on their appointment, Michal Kaminski MEP, chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament, said "these roles require people who are capable of negotiating between large and often conflicting interests in order to reach consensus".
"I believe that Mr Van Rompuy's experience in Belgian politics and Lady Ashton's stint as trade commissioner will serve them well in these roles," Kaminski said.
"Naturally we are not always going to agree but I believe we have a president and high representative with whom we can do business," he added.
In a statement, US President Barack Obama said the appointments would "strengthen the EU and enable it to be an even stronger partner to the United States".
He said the US had "no stronger partner than Europe in advancing security and prosperity around the world".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the appointments were a "milestone for Europe and for its role in the world".
"With the appointment of these distinguished leaders, I am more confident than ever that together we can build a more peaceful and prosperous world," she said.
Peter Ludlow, founding director of the Centre for European Policy Studies and director of the European Strategy Forum, told EurActiv that if some had criticised the choice of Catherine Ashton, then the socialists should shoulder the blame.
"The socialists had no serious candidates outside countries ruled by the EPP, except in Spain and Portugal. But you cannot have Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos," Ludlow said, because the European Commission president is Portuguese.
He added that the option of a country with a non-socialist government neglecting to appoint a commissioner from its ranks and putting forward a socialist for High Representative had proven to be "not viable".
Piotr Maciej Kaczyński of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) was critical of the choice of Catherine Ashton as High Representative. "This means that the minister did not have the courage to nominate the person who would indeed be the minister. Also, she may face difficulties in the Parliament with her confirmation," he said.
Lorraine Mullally, director of Open Europe, a Eurosceptic think-tank, said: "This whole process has been a stitch-up and a perfect illustration of just how out of touch and anti-democratic the EU now is. 27 EU leaders met behind closed doors over a cosy dinner in Brussels to thrash out who will represent Europe's 500 million citizens on the world stage, without so much as a wink to voters as to what on earth was going on."
"After years of insisting that the Lisbon Treaty would bring the EU closer to citizens, how sad and ironic that the very first big decision was made after a secretive backroom deal which should have no place in a 21st century democracy. This has been EU politics at its very worst."
The choice of Herman Van Rompuy, who ended up in the prime minister's office only after months of wrangling, is likely to return Belgian politics to a state of turmoil, writes Stephen Fidler for the Wall Street Journal. The editorialist recalls that Van Rompuy was one of the few Belgians able to gather the support of the fractious French and Dutch language groups in the country.
Chinese Ambassador Song Zhe said: “It’s too early to reach any conclusion but China welcomes greater integration of the European Union. Both leaders [Van Rompuy and Ashton] attach importance to relations with China. They know China and understand the national situation. We hope they will continue to be committed to healthy relations.”
He added that any potential leader with strategic insight will look at how the world will look in the post-crisis era. "The EU and China will continue to be important partners," he said.