Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The EU’s new “president” and “foreign minister”

So, it’s looking like it’s lightweight, little-known Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy for the President of the European Council, and lightweight, little-known Baroness Ashton (current UK European Commissioner, Peter Mandelson’s almost invisible replacement) for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Two no-marks, for two jobs that many have claimed are among the most powerful in the world.

Does anyone seriously believe that Van Rompuy has what it takes to impose his will over the likes of Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi in Council meetings?

Does anyone seriously believe that *anyone* is going to take Baroness Ashton seriously, a woman who’s been at the Commission for only a year, and was unqualified even for that? (See also…)

The Presidency of the European Council has been described by many as “President of the EU”, with many imagining that because of this its holder will have powers akin to that of the US President.

The High Representative for Foreign Affairs has likewise been talked up as “EU Foreign Minister”, meaning many take it to be akin to the US Secretary of State.

But where America gets Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, we get Andy Pandy and Looby Loo.

Yet more proof of where the real power lies in the EU: Not in EU institutions or the corridors of Brussels, but with the governments of the member states. For it is the heads of the member state governments who have agreed this pair of no-marks – and the only explanation I can think of is that the governments of the member states want these two new roles to be as powerless and unimportant as possible, so as to maintain their own power.

So much for the Lisbon Treaty ushering in the end of national sovereignty and the dawn of an EU superstate. With these two appointments, the EU has been effectively neutered as a state-like world power. Eurosceptics can rest easy in their beds.

Update: See also initial reactions from Julien Frisch (“a massive disgrace”) and Jon Worth (“I am astounded”)


  1. Ashton is not that bad. She has some skills that are useful… and we managed to get one of the top three that’s a woman. Can’t believe it is Ashton, but anyway, we are where we are.

  2. England OUT of the EU Dictatorship!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Hang on. I thought dictatorships had strong leadership at least? Or did I miss something?

  4. I’m happy that at least one is woman. But I’m sad that none of them have international star power.

    Should’ve organized the “Arnold Schwarzenegger for President of Europe” campaign much, much earlier.

  5. The good news is that the real EU president (Barroso) is more charismatic than those two. At least the Commission will not be overshadowed by the Council’s chairman.

  6. “The good news is that the real EU president (Barroso) is more charismatic than those two”

    I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be impressed or shocked by this.

  7. Pingback: Liberal Conspiracy » Blair’s failure at EU illustrates its real nature

  8. Yeah well, I’m not proud either, and I’m Belgian. Think of us who will have to endure yet another period of political instability while a new prime minister gets assigned. Come to think of it, Belgium didn’t really have any political stability for the last 6 years, so it doesn’t make much difference. And our “new” prime minister will probably be former prime minister Leterme who basically screwed up during the 2008 crisis.

    Oh well, we’re all doomed.

  9. Why do you think EUrosceptics are pleased with this ?
    OK we are not ruled directly by the Commission (because the EU is so complicated) But by 26 other states . Sovereignty is still lost. Thankyou to the Council for proving that no one needs to be elected by the people to get power in the EU .
    Still, I suppose you think this is a better result than people having a referendum .

  10. Robin – I’m not saying that eurosceptics *are* pleased, I’m saying they *should* be pleased.

    Rather than a globally-recognised, high-profile figure like Tony Blair (who may well have been able to use his recognition-value to boost the role of the Council President to a significant one), we’ve got a nobody. This means that the position is going to be low-key and uninfluential.

    And in any case, what power do you think the Council President or the High Representative have, exactly, that necessitates them having a democratic mandate?

    The Council President’s role is that of a chairman, similar to that of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Do you think the people should elect the Speaker?

    The High Representative’s role is to act as a negotiator for the EU governments, similar to that of an ambassador. Do you think that the people should elect ambassadors?

    And what’s so wrong about the heads of government of the EU member states having a say in who gets what senior EU job? How is that any different to how Cabinet ministers are selected?

    The members of the European Council – all of whom have been elected, either directly or indirectly – are the people’s representatives. That’s how representative democracy works – we elect governments, then those governments act on our behalf. It’s not undemocratic, it’s just deeply annoying sometimes.

    And we’re not ruled by 26 other states – because we have a veto on all substantive areas. We *work together with* 26 other states on a regular basis. It’s no different to when the UK does bilateral deals with the US, China, India, or whereever.

  11. As ever a calm, collected and rational response from nosemonkey @ 3:31. Agreed on all points.

  12. Nosemonkey, I came to a substantially different conclusion.
    The real core and useful reform of the Lisbon treaty are the switch towards majority voting in the council (to be phased in over the next years) and the upgrading of the European Parliament. Thats the core, and nothing has changed about it.

    The new offices would have been a potential risk of intergovernmentalists attacking the supranational branch and instead of achieving something new, the EU could have been turned into just another international organistation again. A big step back.

    The President of the Council only has the democratic legitimation for the job as a chairman and if you want also for some representation, but not for a position of real power. Rompuy is perfect for that job as he sees the job pretty much the same way as I do and will not live in the wrong self illusion of having to accumulate power in his office beyond what is good for the EU.

    On the other hand the “foreign minister”. Yes I would have liked to see a bigger person there, but the more I read about Ashton the less disappointed I am. She has not only achieved a lot in her one year as trade commissioner, it seems she has also impressed US chief negotiators and rumors say she also gets along well with Mrs Clinton for example. From Brussels you can also hear stories that Ashton is much more liked than her predecessor who was considered arrogant, while she is said to have the needed skills.

    That leads me to belief that you are far too harsh in your judgment and that she currently is massively underrated in most of the media. Maybe I err, but we will have time to see.

    PS: here is a really good analysis

  13. Nosemonkey,

    Firstly the post of President is more than that of Speaker of the House of Commons- or the EUrophile BBC would have described it as such. If these two posts are of no significance then why is there all the fuss about their appointments.
    The two posts are probably not well defined, a common trick of the project. “It`s of no great import ” say EUrophiles until five or so years later .
    The difference about the way these people are “elected” or appointed by the EU is the fact that this is Big Government and the bigger the government the more democracy is compromised .It`s yet more Democratic Deficit of the EU .If they are “indirectly ” elected then you know that there is a vast gulf from the appointed ones and the ordinary people.
    Those other 26 states have a say in the way we are governed . We do not elect representatives to those other 26 and we dont want to be ruled by them.
    If we make bilateral deals with other countries then that is what they are -bilateral. If the other 26 states interfere, then those treaties will not be in our interest. Especially for the UK with its rubbish civil service .

  14. Robin,

    Sorry – I did reply to this at length, but lost everything before I could submit. So, short version instead:

    1) The BBC is not infallible – and the British press is almost without exception clueless about EU affairs (the most notably consistent exception being the Economist, and in particular Charlemagne). I even lodged a complaint with the BBC about their use of the misleading “EU president” shorthand – because it was always going to lead to confusion. They explain the problem quite nicely here – and over the last week or so have started to refer to the post as a “chairman” rather more frequently.

    2) The two posts *are* fairly well-defined. The problem is that the roles have changed between the Constitution (here they were more powerful) and the Lisbon Treaty (where they were watered down). The continual insistence of large chunks of the press that the Constitution and Lisbon Treaty are one and the same thing (they aren’t) means that they’ve often failed to bother to check the difference. Nonetheless, there was a chance that a big name could make the roles more high-profile, and therefore potentially more influential. As it turns out, the EU member states have opted for just the kind of low-key people that the job descriptions envisaged. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised – not least because I was saying months ago that Blair didn’t stand a chance, as he was far too high profile.

    3) The EU is *not* big government. It has a civil service (the Commission) just 35,000 strong. That’s smaller than the staff levels of Birmingham City Council – to “govern” (not the right word, that – the EU *isn’t* a government) a block of countries with a population of half a billion. That is – as a ratio of civil servants to population – the *smallest* “government” in the world.

    4) The 26 other member states *have no say at all in how we are governed*. Every decision that “the EU” takes is *approved by the British government*. There is *no way* that the British government can be forced to adopt *any* EU regulations or legislation that it is not prepared to accept. The EU – like all organisations made up of multiple countries – works by *consensus*, not by forcing things through. And yes, this remains the case even with qualified majority voting.

    Does Britain sometimes accept some EU regulations/legislation that it’s not entirely happy with? Yes – of course. It’s called diplomacy. Accept a few things you’re not entirely happy with in order to get other states to accept things that they’re not entirely happy with. Exactly the same thing would happen were we to deal bilaterally with the 26 other member states – only then we’d likely have to make 26 concessions to get our way, rather than one.

  15. Nose Monkey,

    I am really fed up by these appointments. Peter M told me I was a dead cert. for the job and a fat salary and loads of expenses. He said he would be Supreme minister of Affairs – foreign and other types. Cherie was so looking forward to being Queen of Europe. How can I tell her I have not got the job or immunity from prosecution over the illegal war I started in Iraq ? Gordon has messed up again. He can do nothing right and cannot even write.
    yours Tony. B

  16. Nosemonkey,
    You`re short version is good. Here`s mine due to attention deficit or something.

    1}Whatever the nomemclature, this position is a powerful one and only time will tell if M.Rompuy will be impartial or push his federalist agenda.
    Just saw the last five minutes of the BBC`s coverage of the UKIP convention.Usual tricks that the BBC employs – show first rows which are usually empty in any meeting, show the most eccentric looking people and dont show any younger people,only ask questions that try to link UKIP with the BNP.Sure the BBC is not infallible. It`s like the alchoholic who tries to cover up his weakness, it tries hard but cant resist and reverts to type every now and again.In this case its comptempt for EUrosceptics.

    2}The jobs are defined ? Certianly the budget for them is- expanding by over tenfold .Well above what we pay the FCO.

    3} Come on Nosemonkey you can be more original than that. The old EU Bureaocracy is smaller than Birmingham`s canard . I think within this thread it was pointed out that the EU can be run smaller because it delegates and issues policies down to councils like Birminghams, not the other way round.
    The description Big Government may not be the most apt. I dont know what to call a method of ruling that is remote, convoluted, expensive, and interferes a lot in peoples lives. Also how difficult it is for an individual to make it accountable .

    4}Every decision that the EU takes is aproved by the UK government that cannot but aprove it.They dare not fight it and seem more afraid of the project than their own electorate.
    The reason we are not taken to the ECJ is because the government of whatever hue is afraid of the headlines about another case lost, so it enacts whatever the project devises.
    If the spiv Cameron wins the next election then there will be a British government unhappy about the Lisbon treaty but admitting there is nothing it can do about it. That`s not diplomacy, that`s loss of sovereignty.
    If we have bilateral agreements we may not need to make concessions, and as for being in the EU makes it only neccessary to make one concession – the treaties show that not to be true. We have to make shed loads of concessions, written down as EU law and treaties — and throw money into it.

  17. It seems to be a surprise that an engineered return to the politics of the Royal Court via the Lisbon treaty (and it’s predecessors) has produced two apointees who are courtiers and dilettante’s.

    There is no need for public name recognition – the public are an irrelevance. If you are an insider who is well known to fellow insiders – all you need is an ability to ingratiate yourself with the Kingmakers and the job’s yours.

    Furthermore the strength of a committee man (or woman) certainly doesn’t lie in their ability to “stop the traffic” in Washington or rousingly articulate the needs of the epoch to the populace at large and thereby mobilise a popular constituency around a policy programme. That stuff about the White House being the world’s greatest bully pulpit only applies to open democratic societies. Tony Blair’s skills were therefore never a job requirement.

    In the closeted councils of the post democratic EU it is the ability to advance your objectives by controlling the supreme committee’s agenda, excluding undesireable options and placing discrete but remorseless pressure on dissenters so that by the magic of “consensus” dissent can be airbrushed out of the picture completely. A collegial pact of anonymity provides shelter from the domestic popular wrath that would otherwise await any minister who succumbs to the consensus view and who, wisely, avoids the unbearable stench and stigma of being “isolated” in Council. Groupthink is thus elevated to a governing doctrine.

    The pair of passive aggressives that have just been appointed are probably ideal for precisely this task.

  18. A.J.Maher, I have noted that films of late tend to use a large amount of special effects to make up for a decided lack of plot or storyline, let alone character development or realism.