Little-known British peer emerges as top candidate for EU foreign minister
19.11.09 @ 19:02
BRUSSELS - EU leaders from the centre-left political family have named Baroness Catherine Ashton, Britain's EU commissioner for trade, as their preferred candidate for the new EU foreign minister post.
Ms Ashton's name was agreed at a meeting of left-leaning prime ministers, held at the Austrian mission to the EU in Brussels, shortly before the opening of a summit designed to appoint the foreign relations post and the related job of EU president.
"The eight socialist heads of government met in Brussels and unanimously decided to support Catherine Ashton for the post of high representative," an official present at the meeting told press.
The move makes Ms Ashton a strong contender due to an informal agreement that the centre-left will take the foreign minister job, leaving the president role to the centre-right.
Ms Ashton's nationality and gender also stand in her favour: The UK, as one of the largest EU foreign policy players, can bring its weight to the new post. Meanwhile, female politicians from around Europe have in past days complained that all the top jobs should not be filled by men.
The 27 EU leaders at 6pm Brussels time sat down to an early dinner to try and pin down the two candidates who will represent Europe around the world after the Lisbon Treaty comes into force in December.
If Ms Ashton gets the post, it will leave the field clear for centre-right Belgian prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy, to become EU president.
Mr Van Rompuy has emerged as the preferred candidate of Germany and several smaller EU states in recent days, with Belgium already beginning to prepare itself for the loss of its leader.
Belgian MPs in a plenary session on Thursday quizzed Mr Van Rompuy about the Lisbon Treaty procedure and the question of his succession. "He said that if he leaves, it [the selection of his replacement] would be in the hands of others," Mr Van Rompuy's spokesman, Dirk De Backer told EUobserver.
The EU president is to be the nominal head of the EU with a small staff of 20 or so advisers and a modest budget of €6 million a year. But the new foreign minister will head a large institution with thousands of staff, delegations around the world and responsibility for EU military and police operations.
A Van Rompuy-Ashton ticket would not be welcomed by all however, with Mr Van Rompuy little known outside Brussels and the Baroness, an economist by background, having no personal experience of foreign affairs.
A "minimalist solution" would be a "historic missed opportunity" for the EU to use the Lisbon Treaty to "emerge as a new force on the global stage," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt wrote in his blog earlier on Thursday.
The EU leaders' search for consensus at their behind-closed-doors dinner in the EU capital may yet throw up surprises, however.
French diplomats believe the Ashton decision is a gambit designed to get the UK to put its more heavyweight foreign minister, David Miliband, back in the race. And the Swedish EU presidency has already arranged a lunch for the 27 heads of government on Friday in anticipation of difficult discussions.
"They should lock them in the room and give them only bread and water until they choose, like when they select a pope," a Czech diplomat said.