Herman Van Rompuy, the former prime minister of Belgium who was nominated last week by European heads of state and government to become the EU’s first permanent president, will be more of a “chairman” than a leader, according to Thierry Chopin, director of the Robert Schuman Foundation think-tank, in an interview with EURACTIV France.
At an extraordinary summit last Thursday (19 November), EU heads of state and government unanimously backed Herman Van Rompuy as the first permanent EU president and Baroness Catherine Ashton as High Representative for Foreign Affairs.
Both are seen as discrete politicians who were chosen for their ability to strike consensus among EU countries.
By choosing “a personality less charismatic than Tony Blair,” the former UK prime minister, “big EU member states won’t be overshadowed by the new permanent president,” Chopin said.
“Someone able to facilitate compromise and narrow opinions between member states was looked for,” explained Chopin, referring to the Lisbon Treaty, which states: “The president of the European Council shall chair it and drive forward its work, ensure the preparation and continuity of the work of the European Council […] and endeavour to facilitate cohesion and consensus” between heads of state and government.
“Herman Van Rompuy’s choice seems to correspond to these criteria,” he said. “He comes from a ‘small’ country but at a same time a country located in the historic heart of European construction,” he added.
‘Delors was not a charismatic leader either’
Van Rompuy could become a more charismatic personality than expected, Chopin said, taking the example of the former European Commission President Jacques Delors. “We cannot say that Jacques Delors’ legitimacy was based on his charisma when he was appointed president of the Commission. However, he was behind huge political initiatives and is without doubt one of the figures who has besr embodied Europe.”
Nominating a permanent president of the European Council “is the recognition that political leadership is now more within the member states (at least within some of them) than within the European Commission,” Chopin pointed out. “The European Council is the strategic body of the EU. It defines his political roadmap,” he explained.
“The Commission is still regarded by some as an organisation [aimed at] embodying the European general interest,” said Chopin. “But it is an institution which has been increasingly politicised over the past decade.”
Moreover, its president “will benefit from greater political legitimacy, as he will be invested by the European Parliament on the basis of the majority after the European elections,” he explained.
Few official candidates
Chopin deplored that there were no official candidates for the top jobs except Jean-Claude Juncker, Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
“The deliberation in the European Council could have been filmed or hearings could have been organised by head of states and government,” Chopin suggested. Poland proposed to organise hearings, but the ‘old’ European member states were opposed to this (EURACTIV 19/11/09).
Chopin hoped that in two-and-a-half years’ time, “we will have learned the lessons of the vagueness surrounding the procedure and the image given to European public opinion”. He also suggested a larger electoral college, including MEPs and national MPs.
The new High Representative function
Concerning the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Chopin said Catherine Ashton will have “two caps”. She will replace Javier Solana, the current High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) created under the Amsterdam Treaty, and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, current commissioner responsible for external relations and European Neighbourhood Policy.
“This important reform will avoid rivalries between these two functions,” he said.
However, Chopin refused to rule out other rivalries, especially between the two new top jobs. “One can easily imagine that at international summits, the European Union will be represented by the European Council president who will speak about political issues that are directly concerning the heads of state and government,” he said.
“The president of the Commission could discuss Community issues. And the High Representative will play a part at ministerial meetings with foreign ministers of member countries,” he concluded.