Two challenging choices for EU’s future: President Van Rompuy and HR Ashton

, by Pietro De Matteis

Two challenging choices for EU's future: President Van Rompuy and HR Ashton

Many words have been written about the appointment procedure of the two new positions set up by the Lisbon treaty and on the possible candidates. What we have experienced on 19th November is once again a process carried out behind closed doors despite the fact that some Member States had proposed different options. In short it could have been an exceptional occasion to hold a wider European debate to discuss openly with the European citizens what they would like Europe to do and to be: something which is urgent in order to keep and increase the EU legitimacy. Unfortunately far from being so, the appointment of the two new positions has looked more like a “conclave”, some have argued, than anything else.

Brussels, 19 November 2009

Such a non-transparent process is keen to produce results which are unpredictable to the majority of the public which is rarely aware of all the cards on the table. Today’s appointment to some extent have followed this path and the outcome has surprised the most. While the discussions on the potential candidates for the posts of permanent President of the European Council and double hatted High Representative (HR) of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, have been going on for several months within the European circles, only a few (if any) would have imagined today’s final outcome.

Herman van Rompuy which has been Belgian Prime Minister since the end of December 2008, is considered a “consensus builder” and in this sense he might be seen as a key figure in order to find agreement in an EU of 27 Member States. As a proof of his skills he can claim to have played a key role in the reconciliation of the two main Belgian communities, the Flemish and Francophone, whose animosities have drastically increased in the past years. These have been visible to Europe and to the world when the difficulties experienced in setting up a new government in 2007-08 have resulted in over 6 months of uncertainty.

Catherine Ashton on the other hand, is currently Trade Commissioner following the replacement of Peter Mandelson who left the Commission to take office in the British Government in October 2008. Due to the fact that in her political career she has not held any position directly related with foreign affairs and in particular she has never been a foreign minister, analysts argue that she will need to prove her abilities. Her new tasks are various, not yet clear-cut but surely challenging both on the political and on the administrative side. Undoubtedly she will need to help to develop a more coherent policy with Russia over energy security, give a boost to the conclusion of the long awaited Partnership Cooperation Agreement with China, involve the US on the post Kyoto negotiations and last but not to try to unblock the Middle East peace process following the recent Palestinian Authority’s request for State recognition. In one word she will need to try to give the EU that “clout” on foreign affairs that the EU wanted to achieve with its Lisbon treaty reform, including pushing for having a Europe that speaks with a single voice.

On the other hand she will need to work towards the setting up the new External Action Service and table her proposals for the implementation of such a new structure: Britain is for sure one of the EU Member States with the strongest diplomatic tradition and in so this could be the advantage of having a British HR. In this regard her administrative experience might be of considerable help, nonetheless getting acquainted with the importance and complexity of all the political dossiers might result very challenging.

Following this brief analysis doubts might arise as to whether these were the two most appropriate candidates among the various personalities competing for the posts, however this kind of discussion is probably of little interest now that the die is cast. On the other hand it could be useful to try to understand in which perspective they have been appointed and which could be the follow up on the global, regional and local level.

As we know it today the EU is mainly a global commercial power, with limited power projection capacity on political and military issues. The choice of a HR who has not direct foreign policy experience at ministerial level, but who has filled the role of Trade Commissioner, even though only for little more than one year, might have two explanations: the wish to capitalise on EU commercial power to operate in foreign policy and/or the desire not to have a HR too present on political issues which might excessively hinder Member States’ individual foreign policy interests. As mentioned above a first HR of British nationality might help to capitalise on the country’s experience, especially in a delicate moment such as the creation of the new EU “diplomatic service”. However the fact that Britain has a strong diplomatic tradition could also undermine the process by determining a conflict of interest between its service and the nascent one. Such conflict could be accentuated by the fact that Britain is notoriously less enthusiastic towards the EU integration process and its goals than other Member States. Finally it is also clear that the choice of personality with a lower profile as both President and HR, in the minds of the biggest Member States might be an attempt to avoid being overshadowed by their authority in the international arena.

The choice of personality with a lower profile as both President and HR, might be an attempt to avoid being overshadowed by their authority in the international arena.

On the regional perspective following the “Lisbon struggle” it is likely that there will not be further institutional reform in the very near future. In this view a president like von Rompuy can help the smooth functioning of the EU on its ordinary administration. Member states authority will not be challenged in a sensible way and the same should be said for the European Commission’s role, while consensus will probably remain the keyword in the Council’s functioning.

However the stated position of the newly elected President of the Council (in 2004) against Turkey’s bid to join the EU due to the fact that it does not share the principles of Christianity on which Europe is arguably founded, is set to destabilise the EU-Turkey relations as well as to put in question the idea that the EU could be a bridge for a dialogue between the “west” and countries whose population profess non-Christian religions.

Looking now at the local level, it is not unlikely that the appointment of current Belgian Prime minister as President of the Council throws the country back to instability and under the shadow of secession between the two communities: finding a substitute with comparable political skills in Belgium might be very challenging. Should this happen, this would hit hard the heart of the European project, not only because of the fact that the majority of institutions are located in Brussels but also because Belgium is a founding member of the EU and because it is generally considered as a good example of how different communities can live peacefully together under shared governance: this is one of the key discourses on which the EU soft power relys upon.

As for Britain the fact of having obtained such a high post within the new EU administrative set up, might be seen as an attempt to keep the UK indissolubly linked to the future of the EU. This is particularly important due to the fact that next year the general elections in the UK are likely to bring about a new majority in the parliament who is generally considered as euro-sceptic. However such appointment also has the effect to reduce the room for manoeuvre in case of the eventual, even if unlikely, proposal by the conservative party to withdraw from the Union, condition which is now foreseen by the Lisbon treaty. However such rigidity, which might have been conceived as an attempt to pre-empt certain moves, might be insufficient or excessive according to the cases: should the conservative party together with the even more nationalistic and right wing parties decide to withdraw anyway from the EU, the outcome would be a decapitation of the EU foreign policy head with extreme international embarrassment and a substantial loss of credibility of the EU as a whole. In a less dramatic case, the fact that the High Representative is a British national might invite to postpone once again the question which many Britons are willing to see answered via a nationwide debate and eventually a referendum, namely the extend to which their country should “integrate” with the other EU Member States. Until this issue is openly dealt with, the relation between the EU and the UK will always be perceived as mutilated in their legitimacy and used by the most extremist parties as a populist argument.

All in all the appointment of the new High Representative and of permanent President of the European Council is more complex that it might seem at first sight. As it is the product of many compromises among Member States at global, regional and local level. As often EU’s legitimacy stands on its ability to get consensus over a minimum common denominator, at this point of history (having a new treaty to implement and new structures to set up i.e. EAS), we should not underestimate the advantages of having some pragmatic and consensus building leaders. It could be also argued that higher legitimacy and more influential personalities will not get the stage until the European peoples have a higher say in the process.

Image: Von Rompuy and Ashton, source: © InterMèdia GdC

Your comments
  • On 21 November 2009 at 19:17, by frecnh derek Replying to: Two challenging choices for EU’s future: President Van Rompuy and HR Ashton

    A useful summary of the “why’s and”wherefores" of the appointments - but surely a UK-centric one?

    First, you claim that the EU is mainly a commercial organisation: it is not. It is a far more reaching form of organisation, involving a common interest in, eg, human rights, cross-border crime, immigration .... and much more.

    This leads on to questions about the real ability of the appointees to carry out the functions ahead of them. Consider such situations as the invasion of Georgia, the collapse of world finance. Given the usual low-key style of Van Rompuy, the lack of experience of Baroness Ashton, and the “no-profile” performance of Barroso when faced with such issues, what would have happened? The real world is full of such “one-off” situations.

    You say that the British have a long record of diplomacy, but do not point out that the new High Representative acts for the EU, not for the UK. That specific EU remit is the key factor determining the appointments of all Commissioners, etc. Individual Commissioners are nominated by their own country, but to serve the EU interest. It is also a reason why they cannot be subject to election by all EU electors.

    However, when it comes to the “appointments” of the Presidents of the EU Commission and the Council, and the High Representative, since these are not in the power of any nation, why should they not be directly elected? The Robert Schuman foundation website (available in all EU institutional languages) carried out such an election for the Council President’s post, and showed that such an election was entirely possible. Instead of which we had the degrading exhibition of defensive EU politics at it’s worst: behind-closed-doors “wheeling and dealing”.

    Please don’t be so submissive to the existing EU cultural norms.

  • On 22 November 2009 at 13:13, by Pietro De Matteis Replying to: Two challenging choices for EU’s future: President Van Rompuy and HR Ashton

    Thanks Derek for your comment.

    Be careful I don’t say that the EU is mainly a commercial organisation, I say that the EU is mainly a commercial power. Meaning that the outcomes of the EU power projection are the outcomes of a great power only when it deals with trade-related issues.

    On political/military issues unfortunately there is a long way to go to be considered as a global power (just to mention the most recent examples: Iraq war, reaction on Kosovo independence). You mention human rights, immigration etc but if you read the actual policies of the EU you will notice that we do not have a single asylum policy and that we struggle to have a common approach towards illegal immigration. As for human rights just look the evolution of the human rights dialogue with China and you will see that also there there is the need a lot of progress.

    On your second point you mention that the Commission is to serve the interest of the EU. Of course in theory that is the idea. But look at what was the first statement of PM Gordon Brown about the appointment of Commissioner Ashton (source BBC): it gives Britain “a powerful voice in Europe”. And anyway this kind of statements is not unusual among head of states or of government following the appointment of a commissioner...

    As for a bigger say to the European citizens in the nomination of high level portfolio we do agree!

    Thank you


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