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Belgian chosen as EU’s first president

European Union leaders named Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the bloc's first president on Thursday and appointed Briton Catherine Ashton as its foreign affairs chief.
Belgium's PM Van Rompuy and EU Trade Commissioner Ashton are congratulated after they were elected as EU President and EU foreign policy chief respectively in Brussels
Belgium's Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, left, and EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton of Britain are congratulated after they were elected EU president and EU foreign policy chief respectively in Brussels on Thursday.Yves Herman / REUTERS
/ Source: news services

European Union leaders named Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the bloc's first president on Thursday and appointed Briton Catherine Ashton as its foreign affairs chief.

A consensus was reached at a summit in Brussels after Britain dropped its insistence that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair should become president, ending weeks of deadlock and opening the way to agreement on Van Rompuy.

The appointments are intended to bolster the EU's standing and help it match the rise of emerging powers such as China following the global economic crisis.

But Van Rompuy, 62, and Ashton, 53, are low-profile compromise candidates little known outside the EU and at least initially will not have the clout in foreign capitals that an established statesmen such as Blair would have had.

"The deal has been done. Both positions have been agreed," said an EU diplomat present at the talks, which involved all 27 member states.

Seeking a political balance
The 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 a fragile coalition government after becoming prime minister less than a year ago.

He said jobs and the environment are urgent concerns for the continent and promised to listen to all EU members.

"Even though our unity is our strength, our diversity remains our wealth," he said.

A technocrat with a professorial air and a penchant for haiku poetry, Van Rompuy became Belgium's prime minister in 2008 after his predecessor got mired in a linguistic dispute between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians.

Van Rompuy created his biggest stir on the EU stage to date by reading one of his works at a press conference last month.

"Three waves. Roll into port together. The trio is home," it read. Its subject matter: how Belgium, Spain and Hungary will cooperate on EU policy issues in 2010.

Ashton, a baroness and former member of the House of Lords, Britain's upper house of parliament, is hardly known even in Britain and has little foreign affairs experience. But she has made a good impression since becoming the EU's trade commissioner, its top trade official, last year.

Brown helps break deadlock
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's insistence that Blair should become president had been an obstacle to agreement, but a breakthrough became possible when he backed down and decided instead to back Ashton for the foreign policy job.

"As it became clear that the chances of a Blair presidency, for a number of good reasons, were declining, the prime minister made the decisive intervention in this meeting (to stop backing Blair)," a spokesman for Brown told reporters.

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.

He also had no majority among European Socialist parties, where resentment is still felt over his backing for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and many wanted a leader from a country that uses the Euro currency.

Agreement on Van Rompuy and Ashton prevented a failure at the summit that would have highlighted the divisions in a bloc representing nearly 500 million people, and undermined the goal it had set of boosting the EU's image on the world stage.

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

Although the EU is a major trading bloc, its political influence has not matched its economic might. Political analysts have questioned whether it will be able to do so even after the new appointments.

The post of president of the council of EU leaders was created under the EU's Lisbon treaty, which is intended to make decision making easier now the bloc has 27 member states.

The foreign policy high representative received enhanced powers under the treaty, which goes into force on Dec. 1, and will be in charge of a new EU diplomatic corps.