Standing beside her, the expression of the unassuming Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy was equally telling. Constantly switching languages every few minutes, he spoke of his reluctant acceptance of the offer from member state leaders to become the European Council’s first president. Oscillating between English, French and his native Flemish, a portrait emerged of a man who has gained a reputation as a quiet consensus-builder, having rescued the national Belgian government from the brink of extinction after reforming the government two years ago following a 9-month collapse.
And with them on the podium stood a beaming European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, the clear winner from last night’s announcement. In these two very low-profile picks Barroso will not have the competition for leadership he feared from a pick like Tony Blair or Jean-Claude Juncker. Since Rompuy will largely relegate his role to being a secretary-coordinator for the European Council, Barroso will continue to be the EU’s de facto leader. And with the demise of the rotating council presidency, he no longer has the prospect of an upstart national leader stealing the show every once in awhile.
Together the three of them have been dubbed by bloggers today as the “Troika of Boredom” - three rather unengaging and unambitious politicians who are unlikely to give the EU the respected high profile it had sought to achieve by creating these new positions. Indeed, the reaction from Brussels blogs last night and this morning has been overwhelmingly hostile. Many are seeing the choice of two rather weak personalities as a deliberate effort by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy to ensure that there is no strong supranational EU figure that could challenge their authority in the council.
As for the fourth man standing in the group, his body language made it clear where his institution is headed. Frederik Reinfeldt, prime minister of Sweden (which holds the rotating council presidency), was practically being edged off the stage. The rotating country leadership will still continue to host meetings for the Council of Ministers, but it will no longer have any symbolic leadership role.
But though the people selected for the new positions are being seen as boring, the selection itself is anything but. In fact, it is incredibly important. The remit of these two positions was left very vague in the text of the Lisbon Treaty, and all along its been said that the presidency would be defined by the first person who holds the job.
If it were a high-profile person with much political clout, the presidency could become a powerful position capable of speaking with one voice for the EU on the world stage. If it was a low-profile choice, the presidency would become merely a coordinator role, a consensus-builder who would work behind the scenes to get the different leaders of member states to reach agreement. With the selection of Rompuy, member state leaders have made a clear decision about which way the presidency should go. The term length may just be 2 ½ years, but if Rompuy takes a ‘low-profile coordinator’ approach to it as expected, it would be difficult for the next president to fundamentally reshape the precedent the Belgian set.
But is this really what EU leaders wanted? Gordon Brown may have had his differences with Tony Blair in the past, but he seems to have been legitimately insistent that Blair should get the position. Indeed, it appears the choice of Ashton was made as a compromise to Brown in exchange for his abandoning the Blair cause. Sweden’s foreign minister seemed less than enthusiastic about the choice this morning, and many in Eastern Europe have been voicing grumbling discontent with the decision today. Certainly the Socialist leaders of Spain, Portugal and Greece can’t be pleased about it, considering they got the short end of the stick. Ashton is a fairly moderate politician who has little to no foreign policy experience.
This will be largely seen as a Franco-German stitch-up. Merkel had indicated her preference for Rompuy early on, and after she persuaded Sarkozy to give up his preference for Tony Blair, the two announced they would be presenting a united front in their selection. This provoked accusations of bullying, with Sweden’s prime minister saying the decision should not be made by just the French and Germans. Certainly, it is a sign of Britain’s lack of influence in Europe that even as one of the ‘big three,’ it was unable to fight against a Franco-German alliance.
Certainly these two new ‘high representative’ positions were not the only part or even the main part of the Lisbon Treaty. Still, they were a significant part. And after eight long years of fighting for it, this decision has many asking, “What was the point?” The intention for the positions was to give someone the authority and clout to represent the EU on the world stage and stand toe-to-toe with the US and China. These two are unlikely to be able to do that, which bounces authority back to Barroso and back to the status quo, with no united voice for Europe.
Many federalist Europhiles found themselves in the strange position of agreeing with UKIP leader Nigel Farage last night. Bizarrely, he told the BBC, "We've got the appointment of two political pygmies. In terms of a global voice, the European Union will now be much derided by the rest of the world."
But…isn’t that exactly what UKIP wants? I can never understand what they’re on about. For their part the Tories praised the decision to go with a low-profile person rather than Tony Blair, with shadow foreign secretary William Hague saying, "I am very pleased that those of us across Europe who said that the president should be a chairman, not a chief, have won the argument.”
Both the Tories and UKIP were also quick to point out that Baroness Ashton has actually never been elected to anything in her life. She spent most of her career working for a charity run by Prince Charles before being appointed as leader of the House of Lords in 2007 by Gordon Brown. When Peter Mandelson left his “Brussels exile” to return to Westminster in 2008, she took his place as EU Commissioner for Trade, where she’s served for about a year. Trade Commissioner is one of the most important roles in the EU and involves a lot of negotiation with foreign trade bodies (particularly those in the US and China). However it doesn’t necessarily involve any areas of foreign policy outside of trade.
For his part Rompuy is being lauded by his supporters as someone who united the warring Flemish and French-speaking factions of the Belgian parliament and brought the national government back from its year-long long shutdown in 2008. He reportedly took that job reluctantly after being asked by the Belgian king, who pleaded with him for 90 minutes. He had been set for retirement, and had already been on a long hiatus from politics. Merkel and Sarkozy have argued that his skills as a quiet consensus builder make him perfectly suited to coordinate the diverse member states of the EU.
But it’s unclear whether this skill will translate to a European level. The disagreements in Belgium are between two parties, not 27. And authority in Belgium has been so devolved to the regions of Flanders and Wallonia by this point that the national government barely does anything at all – as evidenced by the fact that it was barely noticeable when the national government shut down for about a year. Is it that impressive that he was able to bring back to function a body that is largely symbolic by this point anyway? The EU may have it’s problems but it is by no means dysfunctional and is not about to shut down.
Perhaps the consensus reached last night appropriately reflects the fact that many Europeans are not ready for the notion of an “EU President.” The Liberal Democrats in the UK had an interesting interpretation of the decision yesterday, telling the BBC that the decision would expose the stupidity of the Eurosceptic British media referring to the Lisbon Treaty as if it was solely designed to create a powerful EU presidency for Tony Blair. Foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey said,
"With low-profile appointees, no-one can take seriously any longer the Eurosceptic deception that these positions would challenge the supremacy of nation states acting together when they agree."From the perspective of the UK and Scandinavia, where the prospect of an “EU President” was most unpopular, this may be true. But what about the many other Europeans who wanted the EU to speak with a stronger, more coherent voice on the world stage? Who now will have the clout to stand up to the United States in situations like the Iraq War? Who now will bring trade power to bear in negotiations over climate change? The decision to choose low-profile people may allay some of the fears expressed in the British media, but does it do so at the expense of offering a solution to the problem the Lisbon Treaty was trying to solve?
Time will tell how these two will use their roles, but it looks like the wild card is more likely to be Ashton than Rompuy. She is younger, newer, and there is less known about her political stances on foreign policy issues (she by the way has a very left-of-centre husband I understand). Rompuy is unlikely to surprise anyone and will probably stick to a low-profile role. But it she wants to, the Baroness could shape the foreign policy position to be far more powerful than the presidency. That is, if she is so inclined.