European leaders choose the path of least resistance

Author: By Andrew Grice, John Lichfield and Vanessa Mock in Brussels

Following a trade-off that managed to juggle the competing demands from Europe’s left and right political blocs, from the region’s big and small states and from those calling for a gender-balanced ticket, the victorious couple were formally anointed at a dinner of the European Union’s 27 leaders.

Lady Ashton ? the Labour peer who was first identified as a candidate by The Independent last month ? won a spectacular promotion from Trade Commissioner to become the most powerful woman ever to serve on the European Commission. She shrugged off immediate criticism that she had never been elected to office, lacked experience in foreign affairs and had been chosen because she was a woman.

She said she was “proud” that women could win such posts but declared: “Am I an ego on legs? No, I am not… Judge me on what I do and think you will be proud of me.” She promised to use “quiet diplomacy” and “endeavour in my own way to do the best for Europe”.

Mr Van Rompuy, the little-known Belgian leader with a passion for writing haikus, who will now take office as the EU President on 1 January, vowed to listen to all members. “Even though our unity is our strength, our diversity remains our wealth,” he said, singling out employment and environment as particular concerns for the continent.

The surprise agreement emerged much more quickly than had been expected. Swedish officials had warned the talks might drag on all night ? and had even taken the precaution of ordering breakfast and lunch for today. In the end they only needed dinner.

Mr Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton were formally nominated by the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the EU’s rotating chairmanship. Although Gordon Brown was forced to abandon attempts to win the top job for Tony Blair, he was claiming victory last night. Mr Blair was his “first choice” for the president’s post, he said, but Europe’s centre-right parties had wanted it to go to one of their own. He said Lady Ashton’s appointment would give Britain a “powerful voice” on the European Council and Commission. “It shows Britain is at the heart of Europe and leading the way in women’s representation in what we have done,” he added.

In fact, the Prime Minister had known for several days that a Blair candidacy was doomed, with many European leaders still angry over his role in the Iraq war. But with European leaders deadlocked about who to choose for the two new posts created by the Treaty of Lisbon, Mr Brown continued to champion Mr Blair to buy more leverage. At the same time, he was secretly lobbying for a British EU “foreign minister” among the centre-right leaders including France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel.

At a meeting of European Socialist leaders before the formal dinner, three Britons were among the candidates discussed ? Lady Ashton, Lord Mandelson and Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary. If Peter Mandelson had won support, Mr Brown would have faced an agonising decision on whether to “let him go” since he is due to head Labour’s election campaign.

In the end, they plumped for Lady Ashton for the High Representative role. With the technocratic Mr Van Rompuy as President, some commentators see a shifting of power to that second post that comes with a say over the EU’s annual ?7bn foreign aid budget and a new 5,000-strong EU diplomatic corps. While the quick decision on Mr and Mrs Europe helped the continent avoid any embarrassing lack of unity, EU leaders had to fend off criticism for choosing two unknown figures to represent them on the world stage.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission President, said: “Cathy Ashton was chosen on her merits and competence, but I am extremely happy that in one of the most important positions we have a woman.” He has been criticised for not securing enough jobs for women on the male-dominated Commission but hopes his new team will include eight or nine women.

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