John Lichfield: Dream ticket may send the rest of Europe to sleep

Friday 20 November 2009 01:00

They will be cheering in the bars of Riga and stomping their feet in the pubs of Rotherham. Europe's dynamic duo is... Herman van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton.

The two halves of Europe's dream ticket were little known in their own countries, Belgium and Britain, 18 months ago. They were certainly unknown outside them. Last night, in the space of little over an hour, 27 EU leaders decided that they were the best – in fact almost the only possible – candidates to fill the two new top jobs in Brussels created by the Treaty of Lisbon.

Predictions of blood on the table cloth at a dinner of European leaders, of flesh-creeping bargaining into the small hours, came to nothing. Why, of course, the EU leaders exclaimed, clamping their hands to their foreheads. Why did we not think of it before? Tony Blair? Never heard of him.

Mr Van Rompuy, Belgian leader for just over a year, will be the new so-called President of Europe, actually president of the twice-yearly EU summits. Baroness Ashton – never elected to any office; never a diplomat; never even a junior foreign minister – will be Europe's new High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

In both cases, their main qualification was that they offended the fewest number of EU leaders and competing EU sensibilities. They were lowest common denominator candidates for posts originally conceived as symbols of a more visible, more democratic, more efficient, more globally effective European Union.

Mr Van Rompuy fitted the bill as a competent, uncharismatic right-of-centre man from a small country who would not get big ideas and annoy the large countries.

Lady Cathy Ashton balanced the ticket as a competent, uncharismatic left-of-centre baroness (ie woman) from a big country, who could co-ordinate, rather than create, European foreign policy. She had the added advantage of being British: a useful consolation prize for Gordon Brown and another attempt by the wily continentals to remind the island race – 36 years on – that they are members of the EU.

Stitch up? Well of course it was a stitch up. How else, in the present state of things, can such jobs be decided? A proper selection process – let alone an election – would have endowed the posts with real influence and real power.

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