SNAP ANALYSIS - EU backs consensus over egos for top jobs

BRUSSELS Fri Nov 20, 2009 10:41am EST

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - In a surprisingly quick compromise, European Union leaders have named Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton as EU president and foreign policy chief.

Such a deal is a vote for low-key consensus builders over big-name personalities and means that while European decision-making may become more streamlined, the EU will still struggle to punch its weight in international diplomacy.

Van Rompuy, virtually unknown on the world stage, is regarded as a sharp and efficient operator in his home country. He has been prime minister for only a year, but in that time has won high praise for bringing Belgium's long-divided Flemish and French-speaking communities closer together.

In backing him for president of the EU Council, a move largely driven by France and Germany, EU leaders are asking Van Rompuy, a 62-year-old consummate politician fond of writing Haiku poems, to serve as a business-like chairman of the union.

"It's not a glamour team," an EU diplomat said.

He can be expected to run a tight, well-organised agenda, and his behind-the-scenes style should help find consensus among the EU's 27 sometimes fractious states. But when it comes to representing the EU abroad, he may battle to be noticed.

The choice of Ashton to serve as high representative for foreign affairs is also a nod towards understated efficiency rather than the influence of a high-profile, big-name diplomat.

Ashton, who has spent the past year serving as the EU's trade commissioner, has relatively little experience in foreign affairs. But she picked up her trade brief quickly and has earned a reputation as being an astute negotiator.

"It is not a bad choice," said Hugo Brady, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform think tank, referring to the pairing.

"Ashton does not have very strong foreign policy credentials, but she is a very capable person. It is good that the post goes to Britain. It will give the EU's foreign policy a more global dimension," he said.

From the outside, however, particularly from the point of view of Washington, Beijing or New Delhi, the EU's choices are likely to raise some question marks.

If U.S. President Barack Obama or Chinese President Hu Jintao wants to "speak to Europe," they will now be expected to call Van Rompuy or Ashton, largely unfamiliar names.

Instead Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the bloc's executive, is likely to be a more high-profile touchstone for foreign leaders, even if he too is a relatively unknown quantity in many overseas capitals.

To that extent, the choices of Ashton and Van Rompuy seem to go against the original concept of the jobs, as described in the Lisbon reform treaty, which was to increase the bloc's global clout as well as streamlining decision-making.

But with 27 countries in the union, what is needed before the EU can become a major player in world affairs is a set of common foreign and security policy objectives. To get those, negotiation, debate and compromise are needed first.

Van Rompuy and Ashton, 53, will be instrumental in trying to achieve that, and the EU's leaders will know they have two skilled and efficient politicians working on the issues.

"(Ashton)'s never been a foreign secretary. However, she has been in the international trade business for quite some time and has quite of lot of experience in multilateral affairs," said Antonio Missiroli of the European Policy Centre.

In her time as trade commissioner, Ashton has been key in bringing the United States and India together to kickstart the Doha round of world trade talks.

She has also brokered the EU's largest foreign trade agreement, a 100 billion euro pact with South Korea, and solved two of the EU's most intractable trade disputes.

With international diplomacy closely tied to trade, and the EU constituting the world's largest economic trading zone, Ashton appears to be a choice that reflects the EU's desire to tie its economic strength closely to diplomatic influence.

The pairing also largely leaves egos out of the running. The EU's 27 heads of state and Barroso will therefore know they still have large chairs at the table when it comes to taking major decisions affecting their interests.

(Additional reporting by Marcin Grajewski and David Brunnstrom, editing by Dale Hudson)

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