Welcome, to Mr. and Ms. Europe

You probably never heard of the new president and foreign policy chief of the European Union – Belgian Herman Van Rompuy and Briton Catherine Ashton. That may be their strength.

Drum roll, please. After much fanfare, the European Union has its first permanent president and its first foreign policy chief – and few people have ever heard of them.

The EU president is the haiku aficionado and prime minister of Belgium, Herman Van Rompuy. The "high representative" of foreign policy is Britain's Catherine Ashton, the EU trade commissioner with little experience in foreign affairs. They are consensus builders, not household names, even to Europeans.

That may not be so bad.

Since the cold war, the EU has ballooned into an indigestible collection of 27 member countries, bulked up by former Soviet states whose increasing numbers have made this key political and economic club increasingly difficult to run.

That's why the member states expended sweat, tears, and years coming up with a new treaty that would smooth the inner workings of the EU and give it more clout in global affairs.

Two key features of the "Lisbon Treaty," which takes affect Dec. 1, are a longer-serving president to replace the current six-month rotation and a single "foreign minister" (instead of two similar posts) to give the EU one voice abroad and more influence.

The heads of the member states, who selected these two top choices Thursday night, apparently value consensus-building over clout – and their own political influence over that of stars who may overshadow them. Witness the failed campaign to make former British Prime Minister Tony Blair the new EU president.

The back-bench choices seem to defy a central purpose of the treaty, which is to give Europe the diplomatic profile that befits its economic weight. But without consensus – and EU foreign policy requires unanimity – where is the influence?

In their separate spheres, both Mr. Van Rompuy and Ms. Ashton are bridge builders.

Linguistically divided Belgium is in danger of splitting apart, having gone through two prime ministers in 12 months. Van Rompuy, an economist who has been in the prime minister's job for almost a year, has been seen there as an even-handed and unifying force.

As trade commissioner, Ashton (and kudos to the EU for choosing a woman leader) has earned a reputation as a quick study and skilled negotiator. She brought the US and India together to help push forward stalled world trade talks and she negotiated the EU's largest foreign trade agreement, with South Korea.

Since its birth in the 1950s, the EU has haltingly moved toward greater political and economic unity. It has acted as a democratic magnet, encouraging change in former communist countries aspiring to EU membership. It has increased in wealth and prosperity, doing away with internal borders. Many members have adopted a common currency.

The Lisbon Treaty is one more step in a unity process which has not always been welcomed by the European public. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering on Van Rompuy and Ashton, for instance, only reinforces the view among many EU residents of an elitist and closed bureaucracy.

Yet if these two new figures on the European stage can bring their bridge-building skills up to the next level, and help create a more transparent and effective EU, that will go a long way toward increasing its clout and influence at home and abroad.


See Also:

Tony Blair loses EU presidency bid, Belgium's Van Rompuy wins job

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