Tuesday

20th Feb 2018

Magazine

Yesterday's VIPs

  • Catherine Ashton and Herman Rompuy shortly after they were nominated for the top EU posts. Unknown when they took up their posts, they had left barely a trace on the public consciousness when they left five years later (Photo: Council of the European Union)

In late autumn, Jose Manuel Barroso, Catherine Ashton, and Herman Van Rompuy left their posts. They were respectively, the head of the European Commission, the EU foreign policy chief, and the President of the European Council.

They exited in an unspectacular manner – reflecting time in office that left barely a trace in the public consciousness.

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  • Donald Tusk (l) is likely to be more assertive than his predecessor. Just before he took up the job, he called Russia the EU's "strategic problem" (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Barroso said the longest goodbye, in several guises, fora and forms. Ashton, who officially finished her job the same end-of-October day, let the day pass unremarked. But she lingered on in a semi-official capacity to continue international talks on Iran's nuclear programme.

Herman Van Rompuy left his post - and politics completely - a month later. He departed in the style that he conducted his presidency: quietly and diffidently.

It was a limp conclusion to their five-year terms (Barroso's second such).

Barroso - the pragmatist

This was a reflection of two things. The first was a yearning for new faces after a period of crisis. The EU had emerged from an existential threat – exposing flaws in leadership, policy-making and eurozone architecture – as a fragile but still-standing entity.

New people were needed to complete the feeling of putting the crisis to bed.

The other reason was the trio of politicians themselves. They were in various ways meant to represent the EU. But they never broke beyond the crises that shaped their tenures.

Barroso, a pragmatist with a knack for bending with the prevailing wind, gained a second term in 2009 largely by default.

That same year EU leaders deflated buzz about who would be the "first ever" EU foreign policy chief and "first ever" permanent president of the EU by choosing two unknowns for the jobs.

The trio

Van Rompuy, a Belgian prime minister, had little international experience. Ashton, the then EU trade commissioner had no track record in foreign policy.

By early 2010 the trio had wobbled into being. They had to find a modus vivendi. Ashton and Van Rompuy were able to mould the jobs as they wanted. This was a gift, but in some ways a poisoned one. It meant they had to start from scratch, building up a profile, a style, a message, international gravitas.

Meanwhile, across the road, in the commission headquarters Barroso was jealously hanging on to the trappings of power.

There were tussles over money, offices and who should be the face of the EU. The upshot was that the Van Rompuy and Barroso duo were a feature at all international summits. One EU-US event, with a bored looking US president listening to first one and then the other read out overly long statements, spoke volumes about the EU.

Defining crises

But politicians are defined by crises, or how they handle them.

As they came to office, the eurozone was just beginning its darkest phase, prompted by revelations that Greece's economy was in far worse shape than had previously been admitted.

The crisis, which also drew Ireland and Portugal into full bailouts, exposed the extent to which Germany called the shots in the EU.

Policy responses were thought out in Berlin and then repackaged and sold by an emollient Van Rompuy.

The Belgian's job was to become a serial organiser of crisis summits, as EU leaders made policy on the hoof.

Austerity policy

Barroso, for his part, was relegated to drawing up legislation that EU leaders, again Germany and like-minded countries, deemed necessary. This amounted to a huge leap in powers over national budgets – particularly in the eurozone, by the commission.

Meanwhile, his institution was becoming linked with an unquestioning policy of austerity. It was a reputation it never shook off under his tenure. Nor the charge that it was a stumbling and reactive policy-maker.

As the eurocrisis started to abate another was soon testing the trio's mettle.

Small legacies

Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014 and fomented an internal conflict in east Ukraine. But it was German chancellor Angela Merkel worked the phone to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Van Rompuy, whose job was also to represent the EU externally, remained in the background. A visit to Moscow was mooted at one stage but then, just as quickly, the idea died.

At the minister level, Catherine Ashton was eclipsed. At the height of the Maidan democracy protest in autumn 2013, when a violent mass crackdown appeared imminent, Polish, French and German foreign ministers did the shuttle diplomacy.

For much of the EU's greatest foreign policy challenge in its history, neither Van Rompuy or Ashton were to be seen. Barroso, on the other hand, spent much of it trying to be seen, triumphantly announcing a Ukraine-Russia deal on gas just before he left office.

They bowed out of their jobs leaving small legacies – minimalist interpretations of the role of foreign policy chief and EU council president and a European Commission seen as weakened and massively out of touch with public opinion.

New faces

Fresh faces started in late autumn.

Former Polish leader Donald Tusk took over from Van Rompuy, while Federica Mogherini, Italy's foreign minister, took over from Ashton. Barroso was replaced by Jean-Claude Juncker, a Luxembourg politician and veteran of the EU scene.

All three brought a different flavour to the posts. They appear more self-confident and are better communicators. Such things matter.

Mogherini, though hardly a political veteran, had years of technical foreign policy experience. She intends to head up a team of EU commissioners dealing with external relations – this should ease the tension of previous years.

Tusk, by virtue of being Polish, already had one foot in the door when it comes to questions on Russia. He lost no time demonstrating that he will not be as diffident as Van Rompuy, noting in an interview as he took up the post, that Russia is "our strategic problem" and making the first official phonecall of his post to the White House.

Both have the advantage over their predecessors of coming to now-established jobs.

The Union's interior

Juncker, meanwhile, has indicated that he will dispense with Barroso's almost manic (and distracting) travel schedule and keep event participation at a minimum.

He immediately set about implementing eye-catching reforms, such as making the EU commission more transparent and making it more political. There are to be fewer laws coming from Brussels. And those that do come are to be thoroughly vetted before seeing the light of day.

With Juncker focusing on the Union's interior, this gives Tusk more room to focus on its external representation.

EU member states will continue to have the last say over foreign policy and issues of money – such as bailouts.

Yet clever politicians can earn themselves respect by ensuring they are at the real decision-making table; or guiding the debate.

This new trio gives more reason for optimism than their predecessors.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2014 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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