The European Union selected its President and High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and Vice President for External Affairs. In the classic stereotype of the dull gray bureaucrat, they’ve selected a couple of relative lightweights (given the nature and stature of the position) whom nobody outside of their jobs, families, and closest work colleagues know anything about. I’ll admit to having “fleshed out” my knowledge of the two appointees just this morning.
The President is the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy. He’s only been Belgian Prime Minister since December 30 of last year, and then, he was reluctant to take up the position following the political collapse of the imagined state of Belgium. The King had to cajole him.
The High Representative for a Number of Important Things is Catherine Ashton, life peer since 1999 so commonly referred to as Baroness Ashton of Upholland, or Lady Ashton here in the UK. She has had a proper lefty background, studied Sociology at University, worked for the CND for a couple years, had a stint working with businesses about issues of social inequality, before entering politics. I’ll admit to gleaning most of her pre-politics background from her Wiki as well as a couple other sources.
I’ll try to imagine some strengths of these appointments before discussing the obvious weaknesses. Van Rompuy has held a country together that by all accounts should not be a country, and nearly ceased being a country in 2007-08, a crisis that I exploited for its humor value early and often in class. By all accounts, his success in holding Belgium together was more than mere competence; he was able to rebuild a modicum of trust between Flanders and Wallonia. These skills should serve him well in trying to keep the 27 member states of the European Union on the same page. Of course, there is fear that Belgium has lost its healer and will once again descend into chaos.
Lady Ashton was the Leader of the House of Lords for a bit over a year, has held the post of EU Trade Commissioner (replacing Peter Mandelson) for a bit over a year, has a reputation for . . . well, hell, I really don’t know anything about her.
I wrote about this on Halloween. While my post was primarily a befuddled questioning of Tory tactics on several issues, I had this to say about the positions:
Second, I don’t see the value in European leaders wanting a “chairman rather than a chief”. A recognizable, public face as the putative leader or figurehead representing the EU will help not only abroad, but within the EU itself. Not noted for its democratic transparency, distrusted by more than just the British, and perceived to be run by faceless Eurocrats in Brussels, such a “president” would help raise the profile of the EU within the EU.
These appointments will help the image or profile of the EU neither abroad nor within. What they do suggest is that the 27 member states, especially the leaders of the large leading countries (e.g. Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and . . . Italy? Poland?) did not want these posts to have a higher profile than they. So, we get a perhaps diplomatically and politically gifted Belgian Prime Minister whom nobody outside of Brussels or Antwerp has really heard of, and a British politician who, as The Guardian argues, is as obscure as she is unelected. Can you even be a politician in a democracy if you’ve never stood for election?
Critics of the EU will have a field day with this, indeed already are here in the UK. The leader of UKIP (and an MEP), Nigel Farage, argued
We’ve got the appointment of two political pygmies. In terms of a global voice, the European Union will now be much derided by the rest of the world. Baroness Ashton is ideal for the role. She has never had a proper job and never been elected to public office.
But then we would expect UKIP to say that.
A greater problem will be the legacy that they establish in designing their positions. The descriptions are suitably vague enough that a strong political force could have developed them into something useful vis-a-vis the various heads of government in the EU. However, George Washington they ain’t.
Speaking of American Presidents, Obama did claim that these appointments would make the EU an “even stronger partner” to the United States.
Did he say this before, or after, looking them up on wikipedia?
Note: while I may appear to be overly critical of Belgium, I rather love that country, and spent a lot of time in it when I lived in the Netherlands. In fact, one of my top five beer bars on the planet is in Antwerp.