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EU gets President, foreign affairs chief

Vaiju Naravane

- PHOTO: AFP

COMPROMISE CHOICE: Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commissioner for Trade Catherine Ashton after their election in Brussels on Thursday.

PARIS: Belgian Prime Minister, the modest and self-effacing Herman Von Rompuy (pronounced Rumpoy) has been elected to be Europe's first President, while Britain's Catherine Ashton has been named the 27-member body's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

In designating two almost unknown personalities to the posts, the European Union has set aside its ambitions for a strong diplomatic voice for Europe which would place the world's most powerful economic bloc on par with other world powers. Major European players like Germany, France or Britain have thus ensured that they will continue to play a major role in world politics.

The European press on Friday lambasted the compromise which resulted in a consensus choice of the two candidates, while criticism poured in from EU watchers who were hoping for strong leaders. Thus, hopefuls with experience and a world profile like Britain's Tony Bair, Luxemburg's Jean Claude Juncker or the Dutch Jan Peter Balkenende were passed over in favour of the utterly nondescript and timorous Mr. Von Rompuy while names like Britain's David Milliband or Italy's Massimo d'Alema were set aside for the potentially powerful post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

"Europe's leaders asserted the supremacy of the nation state: the new President and foreign policy chief would be the servants, not the masters, of the national capitals," commented The Financial Times

"The broader lesson of their nomination last night is that Europe's leaders do not have much appetite for creating high-profile new jobs in Brussels," the paper added. Across Europe there were cries of disappointment coupled with the feeling that their leaders had sold Europe short.

The former French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, described the choice as "catastrophic". He said in a radio interview: "They had already inflicted several mortal wounds on Europe whose twitching body was in the last throes of agony. This was the final coup de grace."

Jean Quatremer, the respected EU correspondent of left-leaning daily Liberation, described Mr. Van Rompuy as "a purely decorative element".

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the popular Green Euro MP from Germany, said: "Europe has touched rock bottom. After having appointed a weak President of the European Commission in the person of Mr. Barroso, the heads of state have now nominated a bland EU President and an insignificant High Representative for diplomacy. EU leaders have continued weakening the EU's institutions."

The German press was scathing about the EU leaders' choice. "Can these two personalities incarnate the ‚lan that our leaders promised us? The clear answer is `No'," wrote the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

French opposition leader Francois Bayrou said the Belgian Prime Minister was chosen "because he is colourless and would allow Ms. Merkel, Mr. Brown and Mr. Sarkozy to do what they wish."

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