30th Mar 2023

New appointments mark an improbable rise

A deal struck by EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday evening (19 November) marked the latest step of an improbable rise by two erstwhile little-known politicians.

Controversy over government meddling in a court case surrounding the breakup of the cross-border bank, Fortis, late last year saw Herman Van Rompuy unexpectedly catapulted into the role of Belgian prime minister.

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And a surprise call to return to domestic UK politics for former EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson sent replacement Catherine Ashton on a journey to the EU's capital some months earlier.

Having held the office of prime minister for less than one year, perhaps Mr Van Rompuy's greatest success has been to efficiently navigate a middle path between the frequently conflicting views voiced by politicians in Belgium's Dutch and French-speaking regions.

A member of the Flemish Christian Democrat party (CD&V), the Belgian leader's low-key conciliatory style and political orientation were key in him securing the council presidency job.

The 62-year old intellectual with a passion for writing Japanese haiku poems was also undoubtedly aided by his lack of political baggage, following a political career that has seen him take few controversial positions.

His training in economics was followed by a stint at the Belgian central bank in the early 1970s, before taking over the leadership of the Flemish Christian Democrat party (1988-93).

Mr Van Rompuy then served as minister of budget (1993-99), and subsequently took over as leader of lower house of the Belgian parliament in 2007.

He has been supportive of stimulus spending, despite presiding over a country with one of Europe's highest debt-to-GDP ratios, and on Thursday night said battling the "anxiety and uncertainty" triggered by the financial crisis and fighting climate change will be his top priorities.

More controversially, comments made by the Belgian leader in 2004, when in opposition, suggest he does not favour the prospect of Turkey joining the EU, drawing concerns from Turkish politicians following his appointment to the council presidency post.

Known for his support of strong ties with the US, less is known about Mr Van Rompuy's vision for Europe.

Catherine Ashton

Ms Ashton's rise could possibly be described as being even less expected, although as a woman from the Socialist political family and a large country, she ticked all the boxes necessary to get the high representative position.

Despite criticism over her lack of foreign policy experience, the current EU trade commissioner from the UK insisted on Thursday night that she has the necessary skills for the job.

"In the last year as trade commissioner I've traveled all over the world, I've built new trade agreements, I've built new relationships, so I do have some experience," she told Al Jazeera News.

Ms Ashton, who started her political career with an appointment as chair of the Hertfordshire Health Authority has never been elected to public office, with sources saying she was one of three candidates put forward by the UK government, along with current British business secretary Peter Mandelson, and Geoff Hoon, a former defence secretary.

Since her departure from the UK's upper parliamentary chamber – the House of Lords – in 2008, she has won plaudits for her trade negotiations, recently securing a free-trade agreement with South Korea, considered the jewel in the EU's crown of bilateral deals.

She has also worked hard to kick-start the stalled multilateral Doha trade negotiations and recently made good progress in resolving a long-running dispute with several Latin American countries over bananas.

Having studied economics and sociology, the 53-year old has worked on a number of social issues such as campaigning for nuclear disarmament, before being made a life peer as Baroness Ashton of Upholland in 1999.

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