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European Union settles on a Belgian and a Briton for top posts

Although seeking a higher profile, the EU picks two relative unknowns. Belgian Premier Herman Van Rompuy will be the first full-time president. Catherine Ashton of Britain is to be foreign minister.

November 20, 2009|By Henry Chu
  • Belgium Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, the new European Union full-time president, congratulates Catherine Ashton, who will be his foreign minister, at a news conference in Brussels. Ashton is currently the EU trade commissioner.
Belgium Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, the new European Union full-time… (Georges Gobet / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from London — The European Union wants to become a more influential and higher-profile alliance, but its leaders picked a pair of relative unknowns Thursday to represent the continent on the international stage.

Herman Van Rompuy, the prime minister of Belgium, is to become the EU's first full-time president on Jan. 1, filling a post aimed at helping strengthen and streamline the alliance. Known as an effective mediator and a composer of haiku, including a widely circulated poem on hair loss, Van Rompuy will move from one office to another in Brussels, the seat of both the Belgian government and EU headquarters.

EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton, a member of Britain's Labor Party, was chosen as the bloc's new foreign minister, the No. 2 job. Her appointment was seen as a concession to Britain, which had lobbied for former Prime Minister Tony Blair to be named president.

The unanimous choices came after just a couple of hours of discussion by the leaders of the 27 EU member nations at a dinner meeting in Brussels.

Analysts had expected a protracted, possibly all-night horse-trading session, but support for the two winners apparently crystallized quickly as acceptable compromises to EU leaders juggling the demands of big countries versus small ones, east versus west, left-wing versus right-wing and issues of gender balance.

However, the choice of two people so little known outside their own countries -- and, in the case of Ashton, even within it -- raised questions of how the EU expected to boost its profile on the world stage.

By picking Van Rompuy, European leaders signaled a desire more for someone to manage their meetings effectively than for a heavy hitter, such as Blair, with an international reputation that could potentially overshadow the organization.

Van Rompuy, 62, has served as Belgium's premier for less than a year but has earned a reputation as a consensus-builder. He emphasized that quality in his acceptance speech Thursday night.

"I will consider everyone's interests and sensitivities. Even if our unity is our strength, our diversity remains our wealth," Van Rompuy said. "Every country should emerge victorious from negotiations. A negotiation that ends with a defeated party is never a good negotiation."

His term as president of the European Council, the body comprising all 27 EU country leaders, is to last 2 1/2 years.

Ashton, 53, was leader of Britain's House of Lords before becoming the EU's trade commissioner. Her candidacy for the new position of high representative of foreign affairs and security came as a last-minute surprise. The British foreign minister, David Miliband, had been considered the front-runner but insisted that he did not want the job, preferring to concentrate on his current post.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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