Friday, November 20, 2009


Mainstream US media coverage of the appointments of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton as president and high representative for foreign policy, respectively, ranged from dismissal (quoting Van Rompuy's haikus) to skeptical ("the end of ambition for the EU") to indifferent. A few central themes emerged:

This decision, the result of an undemocratic process of back-room haggling by leaders of the EU's 27 members, proves that the Union is, and will remain, more economic than political. The president risks having no political teeth since the Lisbon Treaty does not provide a clear definition of what the EU president will actually do apart from "facilitating" and "consensus-building." Moreover, major budgetary and security decision-making still lies in the hands of individual nations. That means Van Rompuy will have "little leverage to resolve the bloc's divisions over financial regulation, ties with Russia, or the conflict in Afghanistan."

The press did not delve deeply into the top foreign policy post but did mention that it commanded very little respect among some Europeans who were in the running for it (including British Foreign Minister David Miliband). Still, the foreign policy post could "become more important" than the presidency. Not only is the department allotted a significant budget to the tune of billions, but the starting size of the diplomatic corps and staff hovers around 3,000, and among the foreign minister's key tasks will be oversight of the EU's military missions overseas.

It is understood that by naming Van Rompuy, Europe's leaders have demonstrated their desire for "a convinced European," "someone to manage their meetings effectively" and not "a heavy hitter...that could potentially overshadow the organization" (like a Tony Blair). Optimistic accounts insist that Van Rompuy's smaller status could actually provide him with more flexibility to reconcile competing member state interests in order to harmonize the internal decision-making process - even if that comes at the expense of a bolstered international profile and a clear mandate to speak to the world on behalf of a cohesive Europe.

Both Van Rompuy and Ashton (a Baroness, it is noted) are portrayed as weak figures with critically little experience who will "struggle to assert themselves over Europe's high-wattage national politicians." Combined they count a mere two years of experience in their current posts, have never held elected office, and are largely unknown outside of their home nations. However, the two were deemed to be "acceptable compromises" and "concession appointments" by EU leaders who are unwilling to cede to a powerful and prestigious leader in Brussels.

Despite being praised for being an effective arbiter who has greatly eased tensions in his native Belgium, Van Rompuy garners some sarcastic coverage. One paper wrote that European optimists hoped the selection process would yield a "continental George Washington" who could unite a fragmented Union, but instead they have Van Rompuy. He is ribbed for his love of duckpin bowling and writing haikus. And regarding his role as negotiator of the interests of 27 member states, the newly-appointed European president is quoted as saying: "As president of the European Council, I will listen to every country and make sure every country comes out a winner in every negotiation."

And the conclusion for transatlantic relations? According to the New York Times: "The United States and other E.U. partners should expect little change in their traditional bilateral dealings with national governments in Europe despite Van Rompuy's addition to the vast Euro-bureaucracy in Brussels."

-Amy Greene

Sources Consulted:
Bloomberg, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post