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Election of Van Rompuy as New EU President Draws Mixed Reaction

Belgian prime minister is a low-key politician with a reputation for conciliation, some are deeply disappointed that European leaders failed to choose a more forceful and high profile personality to represent the regional bloc on the world stage.

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Lisa Bryant

Europeans woke up Friday to news they had their first full time European Union president - a man most of them had never heard of. Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy is a low-key politician with a reputation for conciliation.

The choice of Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as European Union president has drawn mixed reaction. The Obama administration saluted his appointment, saying it would make the European Union a stronger partner. But others are deeply disappointed that European leaders failed to choose a more forceful and high profile personality to represent the regional bloc on the world stage.

The same sentiment was expressed about the EU's new foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, the British trade commissioner to the European Union, who is little known outside her country.

In voting for the candidates, EU leaders tried to strike a balance between competing partisan, regional and gender interests in the 27-member bloc. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden - which holds the EU presidency until the year's end - said the choice reflected an effort to unify the bloc.

"I think the idea was that we have more and more cross-border problems, we have 27 member countries, hopefully we will be more member countries in the future, we have a deep belief in European integration. So what we were seeking were people to create continuity, to be able to put us together, to be the voice, the face and the presence of Europe throughout the world. And have we achieved this? Yes," said Reinfeldt.

Born in Brussels and trained as an economist, 62-year-old Mr. Van Rompuy was chosen as Belgian's premier only a year ago. He is Flemish and a member of Belgium's conservative Christian Democrat party.

Janis Emmanouilidis, an analyst at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, says Mr. Van Rompuy has already shown a talent as a consensus builder when it comes to Belgium's fractious politics.

"When you look at Belgian internal politics which are very complicated and dominated by problems between the two major groups in Belgium - the Dutch speaking and the French speaking - he's been able to cope rather well with that complicated situation. So he's somebody who can seek consensus and that's something you will need within the European council where the heads of state and governments come together and need to find decisions on the highest political level," said Emmanouilidis.

As EU chief, Mr. Van Rompuy said he would remain discrete. When asked Thursday night about whether he supported Turkey's accession to the European Union, he did not answer. Mr. Van Rompuy is said to be against Turkish membership. He instead talked about working together.

"Without respect for our diversity, we will never build on our unity. I will always bear this principle in mind," he said.

Asked how he felt about becoming EU president, Mr. Van Rompuy said that for the first time in his life he felt like writing his memoirs. Characteristically, he did not elaborate.
 

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