The President of Europe: it's a title that may sound as fictitious as King of the World or Master of the Universe. Yet it has become a reality now. One of the aims of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty was to impart the European Union more coherence and continuity in key policy areas. The current system of presidency - held by member states in turn, on a bi-annual rotation - was found lacking. Hence, earlier this month, EU leaders rendezvoused in Brussels to negotiate their first full-time European Council President and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Last week, unanimously backed by the 27 EU leaders at the Brussels summit, these top positions went respectively to Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy and EU Trade Commissioner, Baroness Catherine Ashton (UK).
The Christian Democrat Van Rompuy (b. 1947) has a solid reputation as a coalition builder. An article in the most recent issue of the yearbook The Low Countries made mention of his remarkable ability to compromise. He is a no-nonsense consensual statesman who led the linguistically divided Belgium out of a political crisis at the start of this year. Hence, rather unsurprisingly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised him as 'a consensus builder' who has 'brought a period of political stability to his country after months of uncertainty'. Equally unsurprising are Van Rompuy's statement that each and every country should emerge as a winner out of negations and his lofty statement that 'even if unity remains our strength, our diversity remains our wealth', thus stressing the individuality of EU member states. Goodwill and no frills, in a nutshell.
Still more praise came from José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, who called Van Rompuy's appointment 'a tribute to Belgium', in regard to Belgium's key role as host of the EU's main institutions.
But Van Rompuy got some serious flak too, and especially so from a large portion of British press. He got profiled as a grey mouse, 'a virtual nonentity on the world stage', was dubbed the 'Belgian waffler' for his boring style, and The Daily Express - much to Van Rompuy's own dismay - even branded him a clown. And once it was officially known that Van Rompuy landed the job, the same newspaper couldn't resist to have another go at his 'anointment' in 'a unanimous stitch-up by 27 national leaders over dinner in Brussels': 'Herman Van Rompuy's massive pay package, revealed yesterday in leaked EU documents, will make him the highest paid leader in the Western world, earning more than US President Barack Obama.'. The latter still sent his congratulations to Mr Van Rompuy by the way, and no...it had nothing to do with bagging a bigger salary than his own.