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Leaders lambasted over low-profile EU job nominees

20 November 2009, 10:04 CET
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(BRUSSELS) - European leaders chose a low-profile pair of Belgium's premier and a British peer to lead a revamped EU, triggering a storm of criticism Friday for dropping plans to appoint diplomatic heavy hitters.

At a summit in Brussels, the leaders appointed Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy Europe's first-ever president, and EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton the bloc's top diplomat.

The posts were created under the EU's Lisbon treaty which reforms decision-making in a bid to give the 27-nation bloc more credibility in dealing with the likes of the United States and China.

"EU leaders have continued the job of weakening the EU institutions," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the Greens party in the European parliament.

"They have followed their weak choice of commission president with a bland council president and an unremarkable foreign affairs high representative. Europe is sinking to a low. The good news is that things can only get better."

Faced with demands for the nominees to respect political affiliations, a geographical and geopolitical equilibrium and gender considerations, the Swedish EU presidency "redefined" the chairman's role, some leaders said.

Indeed the 27 heads of state and government had never been able to agree on exactly what the job should entail, although experts had suggested a technocrat and consensus maker was required.

Rather than let new delays weigh on an EU project blighted by infighting and popular discontent for four years, "political party labels" forced Sweden to re-draw the "scope and nature" of the top job, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.

The British press was unforgiving, certainly given that Brown had dropped former premier Tony Blair -- undoubtedly the most high-profile candidate, but whose support for the Iraq war and Labour background counted against him.

The Financial Times, Brussels's paper of record, said Van Rompuy and Ashton "would struggle to stop traffic in their own towns," and the appointments cast doubt on whether they would be able to compete in Washington and Beijing.

"The choice of two relative unknowns ... dismayed those who wanted to give Europe more clout on the world stage," it said.

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

The Guardian agreed, saying the appointments dashed "any hope of Europe forcing the planet to pay it fresh attention."

"The continent last night took a step away from the top table, missing a valuable chance to halt the slide towards a G2 world, dominated by the twin poles of Washington and Beijing," it said.

"Nonetheless, the EU will continue to matter, even as (China's) President Hu (Jintao) sits down with President Who?"

Certainly Ashton's appointment -- she has little diplomatic experience, and Britain routinely blocks EU operations abroad -- visibly dismayed a number of officials in the EU offices she will preside over.

In contrast, Belgium's press rejoiced over Van Rompuy's announcement, even though the kingdom will lose a man who has led its linguistic communities toward detente, helping to keep the country in one piece.

"Yes!" headlined La Libre Belgique, while La Derniere Heure feted "A Belgian at the head of 460 million Europeans". Flemish-language De Standaard spoke of "a new star for Europe".

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