The new EU chiefs: Rompuy-pumpy and Cathy Who?

AP News
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Posted: Nov 20, 2009 1:41 PM

Catherine Ashton: International woman of mystery.

Ashton is Europe's new foreign policy chief, the international representative of half a billion people, with a euro7 billion ($10.5 billion) budget and a salary of more than $300,000 a year _ but in her homeland, it's hard to find many who have heard of her.

The former anti-nuclear activist turned career Eurocrat is the European Union's new high representative for foreign affairs _ and it's almost as much of a surprise to her as it is to her fellow Britons.

Ashton told the BBC Friday that she only found out she was a front-runner for the post in the last few days. She acknowledged her low profile, but promised that "over the next few months and years I aim to show that I am the best person for the job."

Critics slammed the EU for a lack of ambition in choosing her and Belgium's technocratic premier, Herman van Rompuy, who becomes the first EU president. Ashton's new job combines two existing ones, giving her more powers than current foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

"The EU member states have talked themselves into choosing two very competent, able, and _ frankly _ rather boring choices for these two new roles," said Richard Whitman, a Europe expert at London's Chatham House think tank.

The 27-nation EU created the new posts of president and foreign minister as part of a reform treaty that takes effect Dec. 1.

For weeks rumors swirled that the jobs would go to high-profile candidates like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and current Foreign Secretary David Miliband, politicians who could give the EU greater diplomatic clout on issues such as climate change, terrorism and trade.

Instead, European leaders on Thursday chose Ashton and van Rompuy, an unassuming man nicknamed "Rompuy-pumpy" by British tabloids. He is best known for penning Flemish-language haikus, which he publishes on a blog.

"Three waves. Roll into port together. The trio is home," ran one effort on the subject of Belgian-Spanish-Hungrian cooperation, which van Rompuy read out at a press conference last month.

The EU presidency was initially seen as the bigger job of the two _ especially when Blair was being promoted as a candidate _ but that view has shifted.

The treaty is vague on what the president is supposed to do, other than encourage more European integration. Van Rompuy, 62, did little to raise expectations, pledging to be "discreet" in his new job.

As foreign minister, Ashton gets a say over the EU's annual euro7 billion ($10.5 billion) foreign aid budget, will head a new 5,000-strong EU diplomatic corps and travel the globe to represent the EU's interests.

On the streets of London, only one in 10 people stopped at random recognized a picture of the 53-year-old bureaucrat, who has never been elected to public office.

"I've absolutely never heard of her before I watched the news this morning, " said London businessman Leonard Finch, 40. But, he added, "I think we should give her a chance to prove herself."

Trained as an economist, Ashton worked in the 1970s for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Now, she must lead Europe's efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program.

A longtime member of Britain's governing Labour Party, she worked for several charities dealing with equality issues and for a local health authority in England before she was anointed Baroness Ashton of Upholland and made a member of the House of Lords in 1999. She served as a junior government minister and Labour's leader in the Lords.

She has spent the past year as EU Trade Commissioner, a role in which she has barely caused a ripple. She signed a trade pact with South Korea, worked to revive the stalled global negotiations at the World Trade Organization and defrost trade relations with the United States after President George W. Bush left office.

Ashton insisted she was not restricted by her lack of a popular mandate.

"Twenty-seven elected representative heads of state have had a say, and they all decided on me," she told the BBC.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said she was a good choice, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, her Washington counterpart while she was trade commissioner, said Ashton was a woman of "formidable intelligence, vision, compassion, and charm."

But Euroskeptics said it was wrong to give an unelected bureaucrat so much power.

"Everything about this process rubs our noses in how undemocratic the EU is," said Conservative European lawmaker Daniel Hannan.

"For 300 years, Europeans fought to establish the principle that their leaders should be answerable to everyone else. Now, they are reversing that principle."

However, many politicians opposed to a stronger role for Europe privately prefer obscure Brussels bureaucrats to Blair, whose charisma and international reputation would have given the EU a big boost. Blair's candidacy was doomed when France and Germany, the EU's biggest powers, did not support him.

An official close to Blair, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the former British leader's reaction, said the ex-prime minister had suspected for some time that Europe wanted to keep the post low-profile.

Thursday's decision was "hardly a surprise; the direction of travel has been clear for some time," the official said. European leaders were clear they wanted a "chair, not president."

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Associated Press Writers Gregory Katz, David Stringer and Rachel Leamon contributed to this report.