Stanley's blog

Many reactions to the appointments of Herman van Rompuy as president of the European Council and Catherine Ashton as foreign policy chief have been negative. They deserve a second thought.

While the secrecy in which the appointments were made is disappointing, it is understandable that consensus was needed on this occasion; hopefully not next time round.

As the post of 31 October explains, there is a built-in conflict between the roles of European Council president and foreign policy chief. The Lisbon Treaty prescribes for the former a chairperson with an essentially internal job. However, the president also ensures the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the foreign policy chief. This is hardly consistent with the treaty provision that the latter represents the Union in matters relating to the common foreign and security policy, conducts political dialogue with third parties on the Union’s behalf, and expresses the Union’s position in international organizations and at international conferences.

Van Rompuy appears made for the basic job specification and his character suggests that he will not seek to project himself on the world stage and relegate Ashton’s role. He should bring greater coordination and efficiency to the European Council. Ashton will not seek to emulate Javier Solana and is expected to focus initially on building and organizing the new diplomatic corps.

Although neither has much international experience, both have been effective in domestic politics and Ashton has done well as Trade Commissioner.

Both appointees are well suited to work closely with each other and with Commission President Barroso. They are hardworking and are likely to be effective in agreeing a sensible demarcation of their roles.

There is a good argument for saying that two low-key appointees are more likely to construct the necessary basis for a stronger and more unified role for the EU on the world stage. High profile appointees would have put the leaders of the big Member States on their guard. Remember that foreign policy is the only major policy area in which these leaders can appear to wield international influence.

If all goes well, a high profile foreign policy chief will be acceptable in 2015.

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  1. There are two big problems with both persons:

    1) They cannot inspire citizen (plus they are totally unknowns), and what the EU needs at this stage would be some more inspiration.

    2) They might be persons who can build consensus, but they are only able to build a consensus on existing policy orientations of member states; they lack the substance to get a consensus on new level; they are not able to push the European Council or the member states forward towards new “frontiers”.

    So they will be administrators – hopefully good – but they are not the politicians the Union needs for the beginning of the 21st century.

  2. “…both have been effective in domestic politics…”

    Ashton has never even stood for election, let alone been elected to anything.

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