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Belgian PM Named as EU President

Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium's prime minister, has become the first president of the European Council.

Belgium's Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy arrives at a news conference after being elected EU President during a EU leaders summit in Brussels November 19, 2009. European Union leaders named Van Rompuy as the bloc's first president on Thursday and appointed Briton Catherine Ashton as its foreign affairs chief. (REUTERS/Yves Herman) Van Rompuy, largely unknown outside his native Belgium, was named after a consensus was reached at a meeting of the leaders of the 27-member European Union on Thursday.

"I did not seek this high position, I didn't make any steps to achieve but from tonight I take on this task," he told a news conference.

The meeting also agreed to back the candidacy of Catherine Ashton, the British EU trade commissioner, for the foreign policy role.

Britain dropped its bid to to get Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, appointed to the presidency earlier in the day after it became clear that centre-right countries, who dominate the EU, were determined that the role should go to someone from their group.

"When it became clear that because of the various political considerations and varying views among the rest of the members, then the prime minister made the forceful step of proposing Catherine Ashton for the high representative's position," a spokesman for Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, said.

Presidential role

The debate over the appointments had focused over what role the president of the European Council should play, with many arguing that the role should go to a technocrat who can build unity and consensus.

The Lisbon Treaty which created the new post was vague on its powers and obligations, saying simply that the president should "drive forward" the EU's work.

Van Rompuy will serve a two-and-a-half year term, which is renewable once.

Glyn Ford, a former Labour member of the European parliament, told Al Jazeera that building a political presence in Europe was one of the challenges a new president would face.

"Europe is bigger than the United States, its richer than the United States, it gives more to the developing world than the United States by far. But we don't actually have the political presence," he said.

"Now how do you develop that political presence?"

'Missed opportunity'

Marco Incerti, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, told Al Jazeera that the appointments marked a missed opportunity for the European Union.

"Because it had been known for some time that Mr Van Rompuy would be appointed as president of the European Council people were hoping that for the foreign minister job we would get somebody a bit better known," he said. 

"There is nothing wrong with Catherine Ashton herself, but she lacks international experience.

"For a post like that of foreign minister of the European Union having been in a comparable job for some time, having built networks ... could have been useful.

"I think there were many names on the shortlist that fitted the job description a bit better and I am afraid that this is one more case in which horse-trading has prevailed. It was matter of giving the position to a Socialist in turn of the president of the council to the centre-right."

 Source: Al Jazeera and agencies
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