EU names Belgian PM Van Rompuy as first president

BRUSSELS Fri Nov 20, 2009 2:13pm EST

1 of 13. Belgium's Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy (L) and EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton of Britain are congratulated after Van Rompuy and Ashton were elected as EU President and EU foreign policy chief respectively in Brussels November 19, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders named Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who is little known outside his own country, as the bloc's first president on Thursday to lead efforts to make it more influential on the world stage.

They also chose Baroness Catherine Ashton, a Briton little known even in her own country, as EU foreign affairs chief under a deal that kept out more established figures such as Tony Blair, and raised questions about how the bloc plans to lift its profile.

The appointments are intended to bolster the EU's standing and help it to match the rise of emerging powers such as China following the global economic crisis, but neither Ashton nor Van Rompuy is a familiar figure outside Europe.

"I believe my experience will speak for itself. Am I an ego on legs? No I'm not. Do I want to be seen to be out there saying everything all the time? No I don't. Judge me on what I do and I think you'll pleased with the outcome," Ashton told reporters.

Von Rompuy promised to move "step by step" to help Europe out of "exceptionally difficult times, a period of anxiety, uncertainty and lack of confidence."

Van Rompuy, 62, and Ashton, 53, are compromise candidates who plan to use quiet diplomacy and consensus. At least initially they will not have the weight in foreign capitals that a better-known figure such as Blair, a former British prime minister, would have had.

Agreement on the positions took weeks, undermining efforts to present the bloc as a united force, partly because Britain had demanded Blair should be president.

The breakthrough came when Prime Minister Gordon Brown dropped that demand and backed EU Trade Commissioner Ashton as foreign affairs chief and vice-president of the EU's executive European Commission instead.

POLITICAL BALANCE

The role of president of the council of EU leaders was created under the Lisbon treaty, which takes effect on December 1 and creates a diplomatic corps to be headed by Ashton. She replaces Spaniard Javier Solana.

The White House said Washington had no stronger partner than Europe in advancing security and prosperity around the world.

"These two new positions, and related changes to take effect on December 1 as a result of the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, will strengthen the EU and enable it to be an even stronger partner to the United States," it said.

EU leaders had sought a political balance to satisfy member states and the European Parliament, whose approval is needed for Ashton. This was achieved by appointing a center-right president and a center-left high representative for foreign affairs.

Van Rompuy, who will not need the assembly's approval, won plaudits for holding together Belgium's fragile coalition government after becoming prime minister less than a year ago.

Ashton, a former member of the House of Lords, Britain's upper house of parliament, has little foreign affairs experience. But she has made a good impression as trade commissioner.

"I'm one of those people that believe that characters can grow into jobs," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Blair had long been the front-runner but many other states wanted a candidate more likely to lead by consensus, and Germany and France joined forces to block his candidacy.

They remain powerful forces in the EU although they have none of the top jobs which also include a Portuguese, Jose Manuel Barroso, as European Commission President.

Barroso will now complete the line-up of the Commission under him and Ashton. Deals are sure to have been made on some of the jobs during the consultations on the top jobs led by Sweden, which holds the EU presidency for the rest of this year.

EU diplomats said it was now all but certain that former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier would be commissioner for the EU's internal market, one of the most powerful and most sought-after positions in Barroso's team.

Failure to agree on the top jobs would have highlighted divisions in a bloc representing nearly 500 million people, and undermined the goal of boosting the EU's image abroad.

In backing Ashton, the leaders also answered calls by many EU officials for a woman to have one of the Union's top posts.

(Writing by Timothy Heritage; editing by Andrew Roche)

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