Critics: EU chose lightweight leaders

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent

BERLIN, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Experts criticize that two political nobodies got the European Union's top posts.

The current prime minister of Belgium, Herman Van Rompuy, will become EU president while Britain's Catherine Ashton, a former EU trade commissioner, will be the EU foreign minister.


Both positions are created by the Lisbon Treaty, which enters into force Dec. 1 and is aimed at streamlining EU decision-making and elevating the body to a political superpower.

The nominations, announced Thursday after negotiations among the 27 EU leaders in Brussels, drew mixed responses.

"A Belgian federalist and a former chairwoman of Hertfordshire Health Authority were ushered into Europe's two grandest jobs last night as it stumbled on to the world stage," The Times of London wrote in an editorial.

Observers say the 27 EU leaders refrained from choosing high-profile figures such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair because they feared being upstaged.

"The EU has clung to its old tradition of choosing second-tier politicians," said Jan Techau, a political expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations. "The 27 EU leaders want to remain in the driver's seat themselves."


Techau told UPI in a telephone interview Friday that this is undermining the EU's ambitions to play a more dominant role in international politics.

At first glance, the political histories of the officials look positive.

Van Rompuy, a Christian Democrat and a federalist, has built an impressive record as Belgium's prime minister in just one year. The country's royals had to convince the 62-year-old to take on the job of reuniting the Flemish and French-speaking minorities after a severe internal crisis but he succeeded and will be duly missed in Brussels, observers say.

As for Ashton: It's certainly good news that a top job goes to a woman. A known consensus-seeker, Ashton has a reputation of being an effective and intelligent operator. However, she has very little experience in international diplomacy.

"Foreign policy more than anything else is about experience," Techau said. "Her profile makes it easy for the likes of (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy and (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel to push her aside."

But Ashton Friday shrugged off criticism that she is a political lightweight.

"Over the next few months and years I aim to show I am the best person for this job," she told BBC radio.


She added that in her foreign diplomacy, she would be backed by the European Council, the thrice-yearly meetings of heads of state and government.

"The council ... will deliberate, will determine the views with my support, I hope with my input and expertise, and that will be the voice that I will speak with," she she told BBC radio.

But while the two new positions are important to shape the EU's external profile, key will be how EU leaders implement Lisbon's internal institutional changes.

"In the end, it is the political will of the 27 member states that moves the EU forward," Techau told UPI.

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