Friday, November 20, 2009

EU leaders chose path of least resistance

By Petra de Koning and Jeroen van der Kris in Brussels (for nrc.nl)

Anyone who had said six months ago that Herman Van Rompuy would be the first president of the European Union would have been called quite mad. The 62-year-old Belgian only became prime minister of his own country in December last year. He restored calm to Belgium, which was going through the longest political crisis in its history at the time. This is a considerable achievement, but in the rest of Europe all people may know about him is he is fond of the haiku, a short Japanese poetry form.

The new face of Europe has been appointed according to old rules. The presidency went to the candidate who met with the least resistance. Van Rompuy has not been around long enough as a European head of government to quarrel with his colleagues – the very ones who chose him for the job on Thursday.

All the other candidates had marks against them: former British prime minister Tony Blair was considered too high-profile and too headstrong, Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker got into a tiffle with French president Nicolas Sarkozy over European budget rules, and Jan Peter Balkenende comes from a country that voted against the European constitution.

Blair too ambitious

The British stood behind Blair's candidature until the very end, but that problem was solved by offering Britain the other top job, that of high representative for foreign affairs. The position went to baroness Catherine Ashton (53), another fairly obscure figure.

For a while it was assumed that if the colourless Van Rompuy was chosen as president, a much stronger candidate would be picked for high representative. But Ashton had little or no foreign policy experience before she was appointed EU Commissioner for foreign trade last year. In the Brussels corridors little could be learnt about her on Thursday evening other than that "she is good with people".

Ashton's appointment is good news for Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. He is under pressure from the European parliament to appoint more female Commissioners, and since the high representative also serves as the vice-president of the Commission, he can scratch one if his list.

According to insiders Barroso is also quite pleased that Tony Blair didn't become EU president because he would have stolen the limelight from Barroso. That sentiment was likely shared by more than one European leader: the heads of government wanted a president, but they preferred someone less star-struck than Blair. This is a cardinal rule in European politics: the ideal candidate should not be overly ambitious so as not to get in the way of the heads of government.

Wanted: PM for Belgium

Meanwhile Belgium is left without a prime minister. Van Rompuy was offered the job last year after Yves Leterme, an outspoken Flemish politician who had antagonised the French-speaking part of Belgium, was forced to resign over alleged interference with the judicial inquiry into the sale of the Belgian Fortis bank to French PNB Baribas. (He has since been cleared.)

Van Rompuy was quietly finishing his political career as chairman of the Belgian federal parliament when he was unexpectedly catapulted first to Belgian prime minister and now to EU president. In all probability Yves Leterme, who got a monster number of votes in the last legislative elections, will now return as prime minister of Belgium.

Day Opening - November 20


One of the many harbors in Istanbul, by Hakan Gil