Europe to Europe: WTF?

How Europeans are responding to their comically obscure new EU overlords.


After eight years of protracted negotiations and a long session in Brussels last night, the 27 heads of state of the European Union announced they had finally chosen a foreign-policy czar and president for the 500-million-person economic juggernaut. The reviews are in, and they are far from kind.

Since the Czech Republic grumpily signed the Lisbon Treaty in October, the topic had become hotly debated in Europe and abroad, with papers and politicians handicapping the race. Would British Prime Minister Gordon Brown succeed in placing his Labour predecessor, Tony Blair, into the presidency — beating out figures like Bertie Ahern? Might Carl Bildt, the respected Swedish foreign minister, take the foreign affairs job?

Not quite. In the end, the European leaders went with two virtual unknowns, at least outside of Brussels: Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy for president and Briton Catherine Ashton, a former leader of the House of Lords and current EU trade commissioner, for high representative for foreign policy.

Let’s start with Van Rompuy. Germany and France reportedly backed "Haiku Herman" — as he is known for his love of composing the Japanese poetic forms, though the British press has dubbed him "Rompuy-Pumpy" — for the job, due to his bona fides as a Christian Democrat and a consensus-builder. Van Rompuy does not have a long list of European accomplishments: He has led Belgium for just a year, and became prime minister somewhat unexpectedly. But he has won plaudits for his wry humor and ability to please both his country’s French and Flemish blocs, which are often at loggerheads.

Van Rompuy accepted the job by stating that he seeks to be "discreet" and that he will keep his personal thoughts "subordinate" to the wishes of the EU. But he has not met with such a considered and humble response. At least in the French and British press, he has been pilloried — with papers calling him "charisma-starved," Euroskeptics declaring his selection a "stitch-up" (a conspiracy), and anonymous politicians and officials close to the 27-party negotiations expressing frank dismay with the choice.

And Ashton makes Van Rompuy look like Bill Clinton. By all available accounts — the handful of them — she is a respected Labour member, but by no means a household name in her own country. Thus far she has held a few domestic-policy posts, never won an election, and has been EU trade commissioner for just a year, during which time her greatest accomplishment has been the signing of a free-trade agreement with South Korea. She will now speak for Europe on issues like Afghanistan, manage a $10 billion aid budget and a staff of thousands, and replace Javier Solana, the current EU foreign-policy czar — a charismatic politician with deep ties in Washington and the respect of the European political scene.

Ashton’s appointment met with scalpels and cleavers from the press. Take, for instance, the sarcastic commentary of the right-leaning British Telegraph: "Bang go the reputations of Metternich and Talleyrand. European diplomacy has a dynamic new exponent and it is none other than Baroness Ashton of Upholland." (Ashton’s is not a hereditary title, but an honorific given for government service when she became leader of the House of Lords.) Even Europhilic papers were unsparing.

Commenting on her appointment, Ashton appeared defensive, telling reporters, "I think for quite a few people, they would say I am the best for the job and I was chosen because I am." But her appointment means that big players like China and the United States will likely continue to privilege their bilateral relationships with individual countries and known entities like NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

It is difficult to argue that either Van Rompuy or Ashton were truly the most-qualified or best-prepared candidates for their respective jobs. By choosing such low-profile figures, Europe is essentially defining their responsibilities and expectations down. Van Rompuy had been mentioned before as a compromise option, but Ashton had not — and the pick reportedly took her by surprise. After eight years of haggling and months of heated expectation, why would Europe pick such demonstrably low-profile figures?

One answer lies in the tension between the EU’s diversity and its orientation towards consensus. Put simply, trying to please 27 different heads of state answering to 27 different constituencies on a continent with a panoply of political tendencies is difficult — but a strong priority in Brussels. In his response to the appointment announcement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy noted that it was important the choice of leader made sure "no-one will feel excluded." Any forward-thinking or internationally renowned candidate (like Blair) was batted down by a partisan or disavowed interest to avoid Brussels’ politicking long before the selection meeting.

Another answer — one with more importance to the future of the European Union — lies in the strongest European states: Britain, France, and Germany. Only Britain even sought to put its politicians into EU high office; France and Germany preferred to negotiate for powerful but lower-profile positions in the European Central Bank and European Commission. This eased the selection process and avoided the alienation of small states.

But it also revealed these countries’ affection for the status quo. They already have strong bilateral relationships with countries like the United States and China, and seats at virtually every foreign-policy table of import. Were, say, a player like David Miliband to have taken the foreign-policy chair, or Jean-Claude Juncker the presidency, the big powers might sometimes have had to cede to Europe where they previously stood on their own. The choice of Ashton and Van Rompuy ensures those bilateral relationships will not be eroded or threatened or changed by the Lisbon Treaty. But it also ensures that, for now, the Lisbon Treaty will not accomplish its ostensible goal of giving the EU a louder voice on the international stage. In the end, perhaps that’s what Europe really wanted.

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.