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Leaders pick Belgian PM as first EU president

26 November 2009, 00:31 CET
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(BRUSSELS) - EU leaders picked Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the European Union's first president, the EU presidency announced Thursday, after Britain dropped its backing for Tony Blair.

Britain in exchange secured the post of European foreign policy supremo for its current EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton.

"This is the new leadership team of Europe," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld flanked by Van Rompuy and Ashton.

The choice of Van Rompuy was no surprise and become inevitable after Britain dropped its bid to get Blair appointed.

The EU's 27 heads of state and government took the decision at a dinner summit in Brussels.

The move, which came far more quickly than analysts had anticipated, installs two candidates with little experience in international politics, and in Ashton's case none in diplomacy.

Before the decision was reached, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, had expressed concern that some leaders were ready to opt for lowest common denominator candidates.

He said a number of his fellow foreign ministers fear "certain heads of government are leaning towards a minimal solution for the presidency question, which could reduce our chance of having a clear voice in the world.

"This could mean -- from our point of view -- missing a historic occasion," he wrote on his Internet blog.

Certainly the choices signal the level of ambition that the leaders have for the European project, which from next month will have a new reforming treating aimed at speeding up decision-making and improving the EU's image abroad.

Sensing the tide of opinion was against former prime minister Blair -- an extremely high-profile candidate whose support of the Iraq war helped divide Europe in 2003 -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown changed tack.

"When it became clear that because of the various political considerations and varying views among the rest of the members, then the prime minister made the forceful step of proposing Catherine Ashton for the high representative's position," a Downing Street spokesman said.

Indeed the differences over political affiliations, geographical considerations and even gender sucked credibility from the process, as leaders bickered over what role the president should play, possibly for five years.

Van Rompuy, 62, was the favourite going in, as the leaders looked for a president capable of working behind the scenes to build consensus among countries and the EU's main institutions -- the council of nations for the 27 member states, the European Commission and the European parliament.

In an early move that helped cut the list of candidates, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende ruled himself out.

"I'm not a candidate, no one has asked me to be one," he told reporters.

Another outsider had been former Irish premier John Bruton.

While not set in stone, it was widely accepted that the president should come from the centre-right, which dominates the European parliament, and the foreign affairs chief be a socialist, the second grouping.

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