Focus on: The reaction to Europe's new president

Response to the recently elected Herman Van Rompuy

The former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger supposedly once said: "who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?" His droll remark has been much repeated in the media recently. Despite the appointment of former Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy as the first president of the European Council, it seems that the matter remains far from settled.

One person who definitely won't be speaking for Europe is former British prime minister Tony Blair. He had been championed by those who felt the president should be a famous name, including Gordon Brown. However, long before the heads of state from the 27 European Council countries met in Brussels for their decision-making dinner, it was clear that the position would go to someone from a smaller country. Mr Blair's supporters privately gave up hope when Sweden published a report which said that the president's role should be that of a chairman. French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who had originally supported Mr Blair, changed his mind after discussions with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who pressed upon him the importance of picking a candidate from a smaller nation. The main parties in the European parliament (the centre-right European People's party and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) had already insisted that the appointments to the two top posts reflect the balance of power in the parliament. In practice this meant the president had to be from the centre-right and the foreign representative from the centre-left. By compromising over his preferred presidential candidate, Mr Brown was able to ensure the appointment of Labour peer Baroness Ashton to the role of "high representative" for foreign affairs, after foreign secretary David Miliband had ruled himself out.

It was Mr Miliband himself who said that Europe needed a figure who could "stop the traffic" in Beijing and Washington. It has been widely suggested that Mr Van Rompuy, who is 62, would struggle to stop traffic in his hometown of Sint-Genesius-Rode. Before this latest appointment, the leader of the Flemish Christian Democratic party had been prime minister of Belgium for less than a year. During that time he has been credited with helping to reduce the country's budget deficit and keeping together a fractious coalition. His supporters point to his strengths as a communicator (he speaks six languages) and as a conciliator - Belgian politics is marked by bitter disputes between the Dutch and French-speaking communities. But by far his biggest asset is that he hasn't been in office long enough to make many enemies. What else do we know about him? A Roman Catholic, he has written six books in Dutch on economics and politics (none of them bestsellers). He keeps a blog on which he publishes haikus in Flemish. His apparent opposition to Turkish membership of the European Union is the only remotely controversial thing about him (at least, in Turkey).

Baroness Ashton also enjoys a relatively low profile, even in the UK. She took over as European trade commissioner in 2008, replacing Lord Mandelson when he returned to London to become business secretary. Before that she had been leader of the House of Lords and a junior government minister. She has never been elected to any role, a fact not lost on eurosceptics. "Everything about this process rubs our noses in how undemocratic the EU is. It's not just the way Baroness Ashton was appointed; it's her whole career" said the Conservative MEP for southeast England, Daniel Hannan. According to the Daily Mail she has been "selected precisely because those in Brussels know that she has neither the political influence nor the determination to stand up for our interests."

And yet in other countries her appointment is being seen as something of a coup for Britain. The Spanish newspaper El Pais, for example, said that it was a bad sign that a country which was not part of the eurozone had won such a prize. But according to the Conservative shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, Ashton's appointment means Britain will now have no representation in the more valuable economic positions within the European Commission. France and Germany expect to secure some of these posts. The Tories fear a move to wrest financial dominance away from the City of London.

Europhile commentators are equally upset at what they see as a failure of nerve. The Guardian carried the same headline - "EU stitch-up" - as the Daily Mail, although for very different reasons. In its view Europe had missed an opportunity to establish a strong global leadership. "The continent last night took a step away from the top table, missing a valuable chance to halt the slide towards a G2 world, dominated by Washington and Beijing", ran its editorial.

Indeed, the appointments of both Mr Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton are being widely seen as evidence that the European federalist project has stalled. The rejection of Mr Blair was also a rejection of the idea of a single powerful European figurehead. "It's almost as if they took a look at these jobs and were scared at what they created", said one diplomat. The appointment of two relative unknowns means the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, remains a highly prominent figure. But for now, real power still resides with the heads of the major European states. And given that Mr Van Rompuy can serve a maximum of five years, who knows who'll speak for Europe in 2014? Don't bet against a big figure (what price Mrs Merkel?) eventually providing a definitive answer to Mr Kissinger.

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