E.U. picks little-known politician as bloc's first full-time president

Belgium's Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy arrives at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009.Van Rompuy is believed to be one of the candidates for the position of the first full-time President of the European Union, whose appointment will be decided by EU leaders at a dinner in Brussels. (AP)
Belgium's Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy arrives at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009.Van Rompuy is believed to be one of the candidates for the position of the first full-time President of the European Union, whose appointment will be decided by EU leaders at a dinner in Brussels. (AP) (Remy De La Mauviniere - AP)
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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 20, 2009

BRUSSELS -- Champions of European unity hoped their new president would be a continental George Washington, a brand name who could pull the European Union closer together and fulfill their dream of a strengthened role for Europe in world affairs.

But after weeks of backroom haggling and private international telephone conversations, the presidents and prime ministers of the 27 E.U. nations on Thursday picked a little-known politician, Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, as the union's first permanent president.

The choice of a conciliator, rather than a bold leader, for the new job suggested the European Union was not ready for the dramatic departure advocated by ardent unity advocates, analysts said. As a result, they added, the United States and other E.U. partners should expect little change in their traditional bilateral dealings with national governments in Europe despite Van Rompuy's addition to the vast Euro-bureaucracy in Brussels.

"Europe is not a country," said Nicolas VĂ©ron of the Brussels-based Bruegel institute for European and world economic affairs. Notwithstanding lyrical talk of European unity and joint action on the world stage, he added, the continent's elected presidents and prime ministers showed they were not yet prepared to cede significant new powers to an E.U. figurehead or choose an activist in Brussels likely to vie with national leaders on European policies.

Van Rompuy, 62, a professorial veteran of Belgium's intricate coalition politics, indicated he would be comfortable in a facilitator's role when he takes office Jan. 1. "As president of the European Council, I will listen to every country and make sure every country comes out a winner in every negotiation," he said.

The election of the European Union's first full-time president, along with the appointment of Britain's Catherine Ashton as high representative for foreign affairs, was made possible by ratification this month of a treaty strengthening and reorganizing the political and trade bloc.

The treaty, a watered-down version of an earlier pact rejected as overly ambitious, provided for a permanent president with a 30-month term to give Europe a recognizable face -- in effect, an answer to Henry Kissinger's question of where to call if he wanted to speak to Europe.

Leaders of the 27 E.U. nations have so far assumed the role of part-time bloc president on six-month rotations, which produced mixed results depending on the energy and clout of whoever had the rotation. It fell on the current president, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, to navigate the bloc through what turned out to be a difficult decision on the full-time post.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair quickly emerged as the early favorite, particularly among those pushing for a greater voice for Europe in places such as Washington and Beijing. The media-savvy Blair was well known, supporters argued, and had personal standing with leaders worldwide.

In addition, his candidacy was being pushed by the British government, which traditionally has dragged its feet on European integration. Having Blair at the helm, his backers said, would make British officials more amenable to further unity efforts, such as the project to mount an effective E.U. defense organization alongside NATO.

But opposition to Blair flared almost immediately, particularly among smaller countries such as Belgium and Luxembourg that have been the most ardent advocates of increased integration. Britain has refused to use the European currency, the euro, they noted, and remained aloof from the common European visa. Moreover, Blair offered warm support for the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was opposed by most Europeans and their governments.

As a result, attention veered toward figures of less status but more flexibility, such as Van Rompuy or Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands. Both were hailed as able negotiators likely to reconcile competing national interests and sail the European Union on a smooth course -- without, however, boosting its place in world affairs.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia, put forward her candidacy, which was backed in particular by those who complained that few women held E.U. positions of authority. Another small-nation champion, Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, also declared his interest.

With the field opened up, however, a raft of competing interests among the E.U. nations' leaders complicated the negotiations, leading Reinfeldt to complain that he was having trouble getting his colleagues to agree on anything in all the horse-trading. The balancing act included small vs. large countries, left vs. right political leanings, and nations favoring unity vs. those leery of integration.


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