Connect to share and comment

Herman van Rompuy, Catherine Ashton win EU leadership slots

Well, they did it! The EU now has a "permanent" president and a high representative (EU code for "foreign minister.")

Whether Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy and Baroness Catherine Ashton are inspired or inspiring choices is another matter, but there are many sighs of relief in Brussels (and Stockholm) that the current Swedish presidency managed to bring all 27 member states in line behind the decisions.

As he took questions from journalists immediately following the announcement of a decision, van Rompuy didn't appear eager to dispel any mystery about himself. A haiku poet who has insisted on reading his works at EU press conferences, he was asked how he felt about winning the landmark post. "I will answer that question in my memoirs," he said. "For the first time in my life, I feel like writing them! Up til now I felt like that would be a vain exercise."

British Baroness Catherine Ashton, currently the EU's trade commissioner, was somewhat of a surprise choice for the high representative's role, as most speculation had centered on other candidates, including her fellow Briton, Foreign Secretary David Miliband. But women, notably those in EU jobs, had led an increasingly vocal campaign to have a female named to one of the new jobs.

Asked whether she felt it diminished her appointment that she may have been chosen because she's a woman, Ashton scoffed at the suggestion, asking whether men have felt their positions tarnished since, she asserted, their gender had traditionally been a factor in holding more leadership roles than women.

The very process of choosing these new leaders, behind closed doors with no public input, has come under intense scrutiny. Open Europe, an EU-critical think tank in Brussels, called it "EU politics at its very worst."

Lorraine Mullally, director of Open Europe, said "Neither candidate has explained to the public why they should get these jobs. And most people in Europe have never even heard of Herman van Rompuy or Catherine Ashton, yet here they are to represent us in the global arena. Surely Europe can do better than this?"

But at a concluding press conference late tonight no criticism could dampen the obvious high spirits of the new appointees and their colleagues. Asked by a reporter whether this does in fact finally answer the age-old "Kissinger question" — whom the U.S. government should call to "talk to Europe" — European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso suggested Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could now give Ashton a ring.