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Belgium’s prime minister to lead EU

Election suggests bloc not ready for dramatic change

Herman Van Rompuy (left) was congratulated as the new European Union president. Pictured are Catherine Ashton, EU foreign minister; Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden’s prime minister; and José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president. Herman Van Rompuy (left) was congratulated as the new European Union president. Pictured are Catherine Ashton, EU foreign minister; Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden’s prime minister; and José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president. (Jock Fistick/Bloomberg News)
By Edward Cody
The Washington Post / November 20, 2009

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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 back-room haggling and private international telephone conversations, the presidents and prime ministers of the 27 EU members yesterday picked a little-known politician, Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium, as the union’s first permanent president.

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

“Europe is not a country,’’ said Nicolas Veron 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 EU 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 EU’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 EU nations have until now assumed the role of part-time bloc president on six-month rotations, which produced mixed results depending on the energy and clout of whoever has the rotation. It fell on the current president, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden, to navigate the bloc through what turned out to be a difficult decision on the full-time post.

Former prime minister Tony Blair of Britain 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 fellow leaders worldwide.

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.