Monday, November 23, 2009

Two “Unknowns” Elected to European Union High Posts

Telegraph, Herman van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton: The EU's Perfect Couple of Nobodies
WSJ, Belgian Premier van Rompuy Named First EU President
English Aljazeera, Leaders meet to elect EU president

The European Union (“EU”) elected its first EU President and EU Foreign Policy Chief this week under the new framework of the recently ratified Lisbon Treaty, a set of reforms to the EU’s internal functions that seek to strengthen and centralize Europe. For a discussion of the Lisbon Treaty, see Belgium’s Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy and EU Trade Commissioner Baroness Cathy Ashton will fill the roles of President and Foreign Policy Chief respectively to oversee the EU’s 490 million population.

Despite their political successes, neither van Rompuy nor Ashton is well known in the global community. Herman van Rompuy is an uncontroversial, 63-year-old Belgian centrist who has spent his year as Prime Minister of Belgium relatively unnoticed. Van Rompuy, a mild-mannered economist who spends one day a month in a monastery in silence, never loses his temper and was selected because he is a conciliator who is not associated with controversial, state-dividing issues. He studied economics at the Catholic University of Leuven, worked at Belgium's Central Bank, and became a member of the centre-Right Christian Democrat party. When King Albert II pressured van Rompuy to run as Belgium's Prime Minister, van Rompuy avoided the position as best he could, but eventually accepted only because the country needed leadership and a stronger identity to neutralize the disintegration caused by the long-running feud between Belgium’s French and Dutch speakers. Van Rompuy speaks both languages.

Aston, also relatively unknown, has served as a vice chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and vice president for the National Council of One-Parent Families. She held a number of ministerial junior roles in education and the Ministry of Justice before becoming leader of the House of Lords for the Labor Party in 2007. She recently replaced Peter Mandelson’s role as EU Trade Commissioner when he quit in 2008. Her most recent accomplishment was winning the 2009 “Politician of the Year” award from a gay rights group. Like Van Rompuy, Aston was also selected for her ability to develop consensus and relationships, skills the EU valued in this election over the political clout and global recognition that other more controversial candidates provided. Ashton’s gender also played a role, as the detailed template for the two positions, created by the eurocratic elite, sought to empower a gender-balanced and politically unbiased leadership slate. Although Ashton’s Foreign Policy Chief position is technically subordinate to the EU President, her role could have a greater impact. She will have important responsibilities of leading the European foreign policy, overseeing a significant budget for her department, and running the diplomatic corps and staff of 3,000 people, with an annual budget that could top €4 billion ($6 billion).

Both van Rompuy and Ashton were backed unanimously by the 27 members of the European Union, but the global community has divided sentiments about the appointments. Some feel that a stronger, more charismatic and forceful leader would better represent the EU globally. Others support the EU’s choice of leaders who can build consensus and harmony within the EU.

1. Should a political leader be chosen for qualities such as gender and age, or should their qualifications be based on their accomplishments?
2. Is internal consensus within the EU necessary before the EU can be marketed as a global force to the rest of the world? Is this an achievable goal?

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