20 November 2009
Richard Whitman

Professor Richard G Whitman

Associate Fellow, Europe Programme


So after almost a decade of discussing reforms to increase the effectiveness and profile of the European Union, last night it ended with the dampest of squibs. The EU Heads of State and Government have elected their own President for the first time and chosen a candidate, Mr van Rompuy, whose name has little currency outside his home country of Belgium. The member states have also chosen a High Representative, Baroness Ashton, who has no prior experience in the conduct of foreign policy either within her own country, the UK, or within the European Union.

The EU member states have talked themselves into choosing two very competent, able, and - frankly - rather boring choices for these two new roles. Clearly, the EU's leaders have made the decision not to seek incumbents for these posts who are going to give the heads of state and government, or their foreign ministers, a difficult life. After all the excitement over the Constitutional Treaty (rejected by the Dutch and French publics) and its re-packaged and rebadged successor the Lisbon Treaty, (rejected then accepted by the Irish public), do the EU member states feel that they deserve an easy life?

What will outsiders make of these choices? In Beijing, Moscow and Washington policy-makers and analysts will be hard pressed to discern anything from these appointments. Neither seems to signal any clear intent for a new direction and character for the EU or the future direction of its foreign policy.

Mr van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton themselves are going to be too busy to worry what outsiders think of their appointments. Both are going to be fully occupied in working out precisely what their new roles entail. Here they also have an opportunity: to set the future tone for their respective jobs and determine the scope and competences of these two positions for their successors.

Baroness Ashton faces the challenge of trying to undertake two distinctive jobs simultaneously, currently undertaken by Javier Solana and the current European Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. For many commentators this is too much for one individual and success will depend on the possibility to create arrangements to allow for parts of Baroness Ashton's role to be delegated to others. Further, she will need to see the new External Action Service successfully launched.

For Mr van Rompuy the challenge is to define a role for himself for which the only precedents are provided by how past six-monthly rotating Presidencies of the EU have managed the work of the European Council.

Both Mr van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton will also have to delineate their roles and responsibilities in a manner that will not lead to conflict between one another in the area of EU foreign policy where they both have responsibilities - the Lisbon Treaty is rather ambiguous on this topic. And both will also have to avoid a turf war with European Commission President Barroso who already has a keen interest in the EU's 'external action' (as it is dubbed in the Lisbon Treaty). There are significant challenges for Europe's newest President and his foreign policy compatriot - being appointed to these positions will almost certainly prove to be the easiest part of the job.

Further resources

European Foreign Policy: Faces for Europe
Richard Whitman, The World Today, December 2009