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Low-Profile Figures Picked to Lead EU

BY Larisa Epatko  November 20, 2009 at 4:30 PM EDT

Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton. Photo: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

After weeks of internal negotiations, the European Union selected two “low-key consensus builders,” as they have since been described, over big-name picks to lead the newly organized body.

Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy was tapped for the new presidential post to serve a two-and-a-half-year term. And EU Commissioner for trade Briton Catherine Ashton became foreign policy chief to chair meetings of the foreign ministers and oversee the EU’s multi-billion euro aid budget.

The EU raised some eyebrows for filling the positions — created under the recently approved Lisbon Treaty — with two names relatively unknown outside of their countries of origin. Others considered the two well-suited for bringing together the 27 member-states.

Van Rompuy “is very low-key, he’s a very, very good listener. He is not the one that puts his own ego on top of the line and then goes from there,” said Greet de Keyser, a Washington correspondent for the Flemish language channel of Belgian television. “He’s very pragmatic and he knows how to talk to his enemies.”

Brian Beary, a Washington correspondent for Europolitics, said in some sense, having a big name worked against other candidates, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But that might mean Van Rompuy and Ashton will have to prove themselves more, he added.

The decision also appeared to come as a result of political dealings among the EU members, said Federiga Bindi, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Some thought the bigger countries were trying to limit the power of the new positions, so as a compromise, it was decided one of the Belgian candidates would get the top post, she said.