Herman who? The world greets new EU President

Muted reaction suggests global community would have preferred Blair, reports John Lichfield
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The Independent Online

Limp waves of polite puzzlement circled the globe yesterday as leaders adjusted to the news that the much ballyhooed EU President would be a mild-mannered, competent manager rather than a charismatic new "face" for Europe.

The US President, Barack Obama, said that he "looked forward to working closely" with both the new European Council President, Herman van Rompuy, and the EU's first foreign minister, Baroness Ashton. He said the "two new positions" would make the European Union an "even stronger partner to the United States".

It was noticeable, however, that President Obama also declared that he intended to "work closely" with the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso – a tacit recognition that there had been no real landslip in power and influence in Brussels.

The Japanese government welcomed the fact that there had been "progress on the new EU structure" but said that it had "no view" on the new appointments. Off the record, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo said that the appointment of Tony Blair, would have been "interesting" because he was much better known in Japan.

Russia, China and India had no comment at all. The appointments received no space or air time in the Indian media.

The Europe spokesman for the pro-European, British foreign affairs think-tank, Chatham House, said that the new appointments were "boring" and "the dampest of squibs". Richard Whitman, associate fellow for Europe, said: "In Beijing, Moscow and Washington policy-makers and analysts will be hard pressed to discern anything from these appointments. Neither seems to signal any clear intent for a new direction and character for the EU or the future direction of its foreign policy."

It had been clear for several days that EU heads of government would opt for a conciliator and fixer for their first European Council President – a permanent chairman for the permanent state of negotiations which exists between EU states in Brussels. News media around the globe have, nonetheless, got into the habit of referring to the job wrongly as the "President of Europe" – as if the new incumbent would be a leader and policy-maker like President Obama.

What began as an exercise in "clarifying" the EU and giving it a more human face has therefore ended by confusing Europeans and non-Europeans alike. The head-scratching reaction of print and broadcast media across the 27 EU states can be fairly summarised by a headline on the website of the German magazine, Der Spiegel: "Europe goes for nobodies".

The man who created the idea of a "European President", the former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, took a philosophical view yesterday. He said that EU leaders had "not chosen a George Washington", who would have tried to make the job into something truly significant. Instead, they had gone for a President who would be "one of them rather than above them". He suggested, however, that the post might develop in the future into "something much stronger".

According to a snap, EU-wide opinion poll, European citizens were non-plussed by, but largely indifferent to, the choice of Mr Van Rompuy. The international polling agency Proximity Panels, said that Mr Van Rompuy's name rang a bell with only one in eight Europeans compared to seven in 10 for Mr Blair. One in three EU citizens would have favoured Mr Blair for "President of Europe", compared to one in 20 for Mr Van Rompuy.

The sense of anti-climax at Mr Van Rompuy's appointment has been re-inforced by the choice of the little known British European commissioner, Lady Ashton, to be the High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

Newspapers around Europe welcomed the appointment of a woman to a top EU job but said that she had been chosen because she was British, female and left wing, rather than because of any evident qualifications or qualities.

Lady Ashton, 53, begged to disagree. Having been EU Trade Commissioner for the past 18 months, she said: "I am very familiar with all the key issues ... Because economic relationships are so critical and so vital in these big [country] relationships ... I feel I have a good underpinning, a good understanding of the kind of relationships we need with those big countries and others in the future."

Mr Van Rompuy, 62, kept a low profile yesterday, making no public comments about his appointment.

On Thursday night, he was teased about the celebrated remark of the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the 1970s: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" Mr Van Rompuy, who officially takes office on 1 January, said: "I'm anxiously awaiting the first phone call."

Ode to Van Rompuy: Readers’ tributes

*Japanese newspaper editors preparing to introduce the new EU President to their readers were last night thanking the Shinto gods for his penchant for haiku, which adds much-needed colour to an otherwise low-key political career.

"His haiku-writing will help give our readers a sense of familiarity with him, and fix him in the public mind," said a top political writer for Japan's best-selling newspaper, the Yomiuri. "It really helps his profile."

The Independent last week challenged its readers to compose their own pithy poems with an EU flavour. Here are some of the best:

A politician

with an interest in haiku?

no more war poems

Jane Crossen

Herman van Rompuy

Your name makes us smile

All Europe your mattress

Melvin Stark

Governing Europe

may be as troublesome

as writing a good haik

Bill Salaman

A duck rises

out of guttural lowlands

and over the hills

Dick Pettit

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