Europe’s Vision Free Leadership

LONDON – The selection of Herman van Rompuy as President of the European Union’s Council of Ministers, and of Lady Catherine Ashton as the EU’s foreign policy chief, surely underlines the extent to which member states are in the driver’s seat in the EU. They manage its institutions in their own interest. The EU is no super-state striding bravely into a bright new dawn.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will not have to compete for the global limelight with any Brussels supremos. Germany will not be challenged to break out of its increasing introversion, no longer obliged to demonstrate its democratic post-war credentials by embracing the European cause at every turn. Britain can rest easy that its world role will remain the aspiring Jeeves of the White House.

The best that could come from the appointment of Europe’s two new low-profile leaders is that it leads to better and more coherent management of the EU’s business. Van Rompuy will be able to offer a longer view than that of a six-month national presidency. Lady Ashton should be able to tie together the political and resource arms of Europe’s external policies.

But it is not yet clear, whatever the Lisbon Treaty says, that Ashton has full control of either the EU external budget or of appointments to the new diplomatic service. She has a difficult hand to play, and can expect her elbow to be nudged regularly by EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who was the big winner in the carve-up of jobs. But foreign ministers will be deeply suspicious if they think that the Commission is taking over foreign policy.