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New faces

November 20, 2009

With Herman Van Rompuy taking over as EU president and Catherine Ashton heading the bloc's foreign policy, Europe enters a new era. The decision has received both praise and criticism from around the world.

Herman van Rompuy, Catherine Ashton and Sweden's Fredrik Reinfeldt
Van Rompuy and Ashton will be at the helm of the EUImage: AP

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hailed the appointments of Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy and British EU politician Catherine Ashton, saying it would be "impossible to find a better choice than those personalities for the European Union leadership."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had originally pushed for his predecessor, Tony Blair, to take over the top job, contending that a big name would add clout to the new office. It was his assent to Ashton's candidacy for the top foreign policy job that paved the way for the unanimous vote for Van Rompuy.

Having Ashton in the foreign policy post would "ensure that Britain's voice is very loud and clear. It will ensure that we will remain - as I want Britain to be - at the heart of Europe," said Brown.

Nicolas Sarkozy, president of one of the EU's other power countries said it had been a "very wise decision" to fill the top job with a leader from "an important country but not one of the most important countries, so that no-one will feel excluded" from discussions of EU policy.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel
Sarkozy and Merkel won't be overshadowed

Berlin to Brussels

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she welcomed the choices for the European Union's two new top jobs, emphasizing their experience at building coalitions.

She said that the appointments reinforced her view that "consensus really is the driving force among different opinions and convictions" in Europe.

Merkel also downplayed the notion that the new appointees lack of star power would hinder their efforts to play a big role on the world stage.

"I'm one of those people that believe that characters can grow into jobs," she said. "What is expected is that he is someone who speaks for Europe, and not the person who is the most well-known."

Merkel's Foreign Minster Guido Westerwelle, meanwhile, called Van Rompuy and Ashton two "competent personalities" who were "facing great challenges" but could count on German support in their efforts. Westerwelle offered his comments from Russia, where he is making an official visit, having attended the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier in the week.

Transatlantic partnership

Top leaders from the United States, the EU's most important trading partner and military ally to most of its states through NATO, have praised the appointments.

"The United States has no stronger partner than Europe in advancing security and prosperity around the world," said President Barack Obama, adding that the new executives "makes Europe an even stronger partner."

Henry Kissinger
Kissinger's quote hangs over EU executive decisionsImage: AP

EC President Barroso said that, with the appointments, Europe had answered the "Kissinger question."

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is said once to have quipped that "when I want to call Europe, what is the phone number?"

"Henry Kissinger, when he made that remark, was secretary of state. What we usually call foreign minister in Europe. So for now there is no doubt - the secretary of state of the United States should call Cathy Ashton because she is our foreign minister," said Barroso.

"The so-called 'Kissinger issue' is now solved."

Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Ashdown "her new counterpart," and sounded eager to get down to business with her.

She said they had many mutual goals, "from achieving stability in Afghanistan to securing Iranian compliance with its nonproliferation obligations and promoting a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, among many other shared objectives."

Surprise and disappointment

Van Rompuy's name had been floated as a candidate for the new EU presidency for some time, but many hoped the bloc would shy away from appointing such a little-known figure as leader.

French Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit
Cohn-Bendit was hoping for a more powerful choiceImage: AP

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-leader of the European Parliament's Green party contingent called the appointments "lackluster," and said that they had "continued down a course that weakens European institutions."

He called Van Rompuy a "bland" choice for president, and said to pick Ashton was to institute an "unremarkable High Representative for foreign-and security polcy."

Even more aggressive in forwarding the view of the appointments as a missed opportunity was the press.

The Financial Times said Van Rompuy "would struggle to stop traffic in other towns" and wondered whether his and Ashton's appointments had scuttled plans to create a one-stop-shop for Foreign leaders.

"More likely the US president and Chinese premier will continue to work with Europe primarily through bilateral talks with Berlin, London, and Paris," it wrote.

"Herman Who?" wrote Sweden's Dagens Nyheter newspaper in an editorial.

"This means that the EU will again have an unknown figure whom few Europeans can identify with," it said, adding that the "situation would have been different" had EU leaders picked former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Editor: Andreas Illmer