EU: Pres.Herman Rompuy
Illustration by Peter Schrank
From The Economist print edition
How the European Union’s horse-trading over top jobs reflects murky coalition-building
EUROPE, it is said, must resist the temptation to become a giant Switzerland: ie, a smug, rich, insular place. But judging by the antics of European leaders as they filled two top European Union jobs on November 19th, the club faces another danger altogether: becoming a giant Belgium.
Lots of European countries indulge in shadowy coalition politics, with jobs divvied out among rival parties, but Belgium takes the biscuit. All Belgian governments are big coalitions, uniting parties that loathe one another, staffed by fixed quotas of ministers from the French- and Dutch-speaking communities (who also cannot stand each other). Democracy barely counts, as even parties thumped at the ballot box return to office. What is the link between this and the selection of Herman Van Rompuy as the first full-time president of the European Council, and of Catherine Ashton as a new foreign-policy chief? It is the European weakness for coalition politics, in which a quest for “balance” all too often trumps talent or merit.
There were winners and losers from the process that led to Mr Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton. The losers include those hoping for EU representatives to “stop the traffic” in Washington and Beijing. Mr Van Rompuy, an ascetic sort, has been prime minister of Belgium for less than a year: his name was pushed by France and Germany as a modest conservative from a small country who would chair EU summits without overshadowing them. Lady Ashton is capable and gets on with colleagues. But she has never held elected office and has no diplomatic experience.
After a career in quasi-public agencies, she became a Labour minister, going to Brussels only in 2008 to take over the trade portfolio from Peter Mandelson. After the summit, Nicolas Sarkozy of France was asked why Lady Ashton was chosen. He gave three reasons: because it was felt a woman should hold a big EU job, because a centre-left politician was needed to “balance” Mr Van Rompuy and because “our British friends” wanted the post.
H/T: Vlad and Tanguy Veys