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


Brussels, 19 November 2009

Author: Pietro De Matteis

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 December 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.

Such a non-transparent process is keen to produce results which are unpredictable to the majority of the public, often unaware 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 (EAS) 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 still 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, 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 own 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 Memeber 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.

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.

This article was also published on The New Federalist:

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