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EU Who?

Today the European Union finds itself with two new top leaders--Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s first president, and Catherine Ashton, the new high representative of foreign policy. If the names are unfamiliar, you’re not alone. In fact, the buzz surrounding Van Rompuy, who has been the Belgian prime minister for less than a year, and Ashton, who was most recently the EU’s trade commissioner, is that there is no buzz.

Take this morning’s headlines from around the world: “Leaders lambasted over low-profile EU job nominees,” “Europe’s leaders strike up the bland,” “Von Rampuy—The Reluctant Leader,” “Herman Van Who?” and “Van Rompuy-Ashton appointment: The EU has opted for the quiet life.”

So who are these people?

Van Rompuy is the 62-year-old center-right prime minister of Belgium who, just Thursday night, told reporters, “I did not seek this job.” His ascendancy to Prime Minister also seems accidental. Last December, King Albert II “summoned” then-Parliamentary Speaker Van Rompuy (who, when his name was first considered, told De Standaard, “my name is being cited once again as the new prime minister, but I do not consider myself indispensable”) to help mollify the internal tensions between Dutch-speaking Flanders to the North and Francophone Wallonia to the South. One Belgian observer said, “Van Rompuy opens his mouth only to breathe.”

Nevertheless, the Christian Democrat, who is a classicist and economist by education, is known as the country’s “Mr. Fixit” for his ability to reach compromises. Before his PM gig, he was a mainstay in the Christian Democrat party, and over his many years as a low-profile politician, he does seem to have drummed up immense support in his own country. He will, however, have to win over the support of some of the British, who reportedly refer to him as “Rumpypumpy” and heavily pushed their former PM Tony Blair for the position.

Other interesting tidbits: He writes haikus in his native Duth, enjoys bowling duckpins, and is reported to have a pretty cutting wit. One recent, seemingly self-descriptive, haiku discovered by the NYT: “A fly zooms, buzzes; Spins and is lost in the room; He does no one harm.”

While Blair failed to garner the top spot, the British didn’t lose altogether: Baroness Catherine Ashton of Upholland will be the new high representative of foreign policy. Before her stint as EU Trade Commissioner, she had held junior ministerial positions within the British Parliament, most notably as the Schools Minister and the Minister of Constitutional Affairs. Ashton, who will be the first woman to hold the position, was not expecting the appointment, telling reporters, “It is a measure of my surprise that I have not prepared a speech.”      

Ashton, who is a member of the Labour party and also an economist by training, has no evident foreign policy experience, outside of her past year at the EU where she is best known for a free-trade agreement with South Korea and high level trade talks with China. She also had a role in the Lisbon Treaty negotiations that created the new presidential position.

International relations experts see Ashton as a question mark. For one, Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “She's largely unknown here. I don't suspect that there is great depth of knowledge at the State Department and the National Security Council. In the short term the most critical thing will be for her to come to Washington and have a get-to-know-you session. It's not the high profile name that I think would have provided that instant recognition, that instant command. She's going to have to build that portfolio and that's not going to be easy. A little time will be lost. Washington will likely continue to use the bilateral approach for the time being.”

Even some ministers inside Britain seemed flummoxed when asked to relay specifics about Ashton. Fellow Tory MEP Robert Sturdy said: "Baroness Ashton is a very nice person and was a good trade minister, but whether she is up to this new role remains to be seen. I am rather concerned it is a question of appointing people who are not qualified.”

So, will Van Rompuy and Aston bring to the table the weight necessary to deal with leaders like Barack Obama, Hu Jintao, and Vladimir Putin? Who knows? But they certainly won’t suffer from inflated expectations.