Europe's New Leadership 'Who' for President, 'I Don't Know' for Foreign Minister
The appointment of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton to the European Union's top spots has many scratching their heads. The two are relatively unknown, but expectations are so low, they can only exceed them.
After the European Union's top level positions were appointed, European parliamentarian Andrew Duff merely said out loud what many were already thinking: "It's not very exciting," said the Brit.
The European public has already had weeks to accustom themselves to the EU's new president, the pale Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy. The 62-year-old proved himself a capable crisis manager after holding together a shaky five-party coalition in his native country, making him a favorite choice for the office.
However, the big surprise came with the appointment of Catherine Ashton as the EU's new foreign representative. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pulled her name from the hat at the last minute of Thursday's special EU summit. Ashton herself was taken by surprise -- that morning she had no idea her name was even an option.
Ashton will now have to set to work earning the respect of the world. Before the choice was made, it was expected that this high-level representative would have already held a position as foreign minister. Instead, the 53-year-old Ashton is a foreign-policy blank slate. For a year, she's worked in Brussels as the EU Commissioner for Trade. She was appointed to the post when her predecessor Peter Mandelson was ordered back to London to save the Brown government from disintegration.
'Best Person for the Job'
While Mandelson was one of the most well-known European commissioners, Ashton has hardly left a mark on the position she is now leaving. She does not, however, lack in self confidence. In response to her critics, Ashton noted she had 25 years of negotiation experience, adding that she plans to use her perceived weaknesses -- a low profile and quiet deameanor -- to usher in a new quiet diplomacy and prove that she is "the best person for the job."
It is a statement that puts her scrappy nature on display. Ashton has a classic Social Democratic background. Born in a small town, she was the first woman in her family to attend university. She slowly worked her way up in Britain's Labour Party, ultimately becoming under-secretary of state in the Department for Education and Skills. During her eight-year tenure, she took a stand for people with disabilities and children who come from disadvantaged families.
Ashton, though, has never stood for election. In 1999, she was appointed as Labour Party leader in the House of Lords, Britain's upper house of parliament, by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. As part of the appointment, she received the title of Baroness. During her time in the upper house, her greatest achievement was getting a majority vote on the Lisbon Treaty. At the time, Martin Schulz, who heads the Social Democratic faction in European Parliament, praised her "high diplomatic aptitude."
Her affable but tough personality has strenthened her reputation as a tough negotiator. The skills served her well as Trade Commissioner when she quietly put together a trail-blazing free trade agreement with South Korea.
The ability to forge agreements quietly is a skill that Van Rompuy also possesses. The Christian Democrat, who likes to pen Japanese haikus and author more social-philosophical works, is considered a master of consent. During his tenure as Belgian prime minister, he gained experience holding together awkward coalitions. He was well on his way to retirement last December, when he was called to serve as interim prime minister during a time when Belgium was grasping for a leader. He took the position unwillingly. This time, however, it seems he is looking forward to the task at hand.
Van Rompuy and Ashton are both trained economists. They are considered competent analysts of the type that are invaluable in public service. They are by no means "political animals." Only time will tell if they are able to face the heat of the international spotlights.
For the next two-and-a-half years, Van Rompuy will have to negotiate the outcomes of meetings with 27 heads of state and government in the European Union. He will have to quickly develop his own profile so as not to become a mere tool of France and Germany, which helped put him in office.
However the more important job, at least on paper, belongs to the new EU foreign minister. Part of her new role will be to create a new European diplomatic force that could involve as many as 7,000 people, thus pioneering a genuine European foreign policy. But the real advantage is that both Ashton and Van Rompuy are facing expectations so low, they can only exceed them.