EU prefers low-profile wallflowers as leaders. EU prefers low-profile wallflowers as leaders.

The world knows very little about Herman Van Rompuy. The newly-minted EU President is quiet, unassuming, and writes Flemish haikus. He served as Prime Minister of Belgium for just short of a year before European leaders chose him over high-profile candidates, like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as the first president of the European Union.

“It was a safe choice,” said Prof. Jeffrey Kopstein, Director of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the Munk Centre. “Between France and Germany, Belgium is the compromise.”

The wallflowers have won out against the popular contenders. The 27-nation organization voted in an equally obscure EU Foreign Minister in the form of Catherine Ashton, a member of Britain’s Labour Party and former anti-nuclear activist, who has never been elected to public office. She was the EU Trade Commissioner for the past year.

The EU created the new posts as outlined in the Lisbon Treaty, which will take effect on December 1.

Europe made a conscious decision to select a low-profile president. EU heavyweights France and Germany did not support Blair’s bid, despite his ability to boost Europe’s influence on environmental and trade issues.

“It’s a sign that Europe’s leaders view these offices as leadership by negotiation, not inspiration,” said Kopstein. “The indispensable skill is not the ability to give speeches, but to broker powerful deals.”

Kopstein also highlighted the strategic benefit. Van Rompuy lies centre-right politically and Ashton is centre-left, ensuring political balance.

Critics have upbraided the EU for its unambitious choices, who, they say, will do little to promote Europe worldwide.

While Van Rompuy may lack Blair’s panache, Kopstein believes he may galvanize transatlantic relations as well as any high-profile pick. He is a known atlanticist, and Belgium is the epicentre of the EU and NATO.

The treaty is ambiguous about what the president’s duties entail, apart from promoting European integration.

According to Kopstein, at this point it is premature to speculate about what Van Rompuy will accomplish.

“The pre-Lisbon presidencies rotated every six months,” he said. “With rapid changes, it’s sometimes hard to get things done. The purpose of this treaty was to make the EU more governable. We’ll see what happens.”

As foreign minister, Ashton will control the EU's annual € 7 billion foreign aid budget, head a diplomatic corps, and promote the EU's interests.

Time will tell how these non-entities show their chops on the global stage.

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  • Subtitle: The new EU president leaves a big question mark
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