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Getting To Know EU

Belgian Prime Minsiter Herman Van Rompuy, the EU president-elect, kisses EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton, who will head the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, after their selection on November 19.

Belgian Prime Minsiter Herman Van Rompuy, the EU president-elect, kisses EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton, who will head the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, after their selection on November 19.

The European Union picked two relatively low-profile personalities to the bloc's newly created top posts.

The first, Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy, is the EU's newly named president-elect. He is a soft-spoken technocrat who writes haiku poetry and blogs on topics ranging from God, pessimism, and solitude to death and European unity.

A member of CD&V -- the Flemish Christian Democrat Party -- van Rompuy is a virtual unknown abroad.

That is exactly what European leaders decided they wanted from the first full-time European Union president -- an inconspicuous personality who can effectively chair EU leaders' meetings rather than strike a high profile and feed strong personal ambitions.

In his acceptance comments late on November 20, van Rompuy pledged to respect the sensitivities of all EU member states while striving to avoid conflict and build consensus.

"As president-elect of the [European] Council, I will listen carefully to everyone and I will make sure that our deliberations [will] turn into results for everyone,'' van Rompuy said.

Van Rompuy emerged as a compromise choice for the post after European leaders failed to reach consensus on more controversial and high-profile candidates -- including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

Van Rompuy had declared early on that he had no interest in the EU post, letting European officials come to him to offer the job instead.

Although he is internationally unproven, van Rompuy is seen as being a strong conciliator and negotiator because of his experience in Belgian politics, which has been increasingly paralyzed in recent years by disputes between the Dutch-speaking Flemish majority and the French-speaking Walloon minority.

Born in Brussels, he lives on the outskirts of the Belgian capital. That has given him a foothold in both the Flemish and French-speaking communities of Belgium.

Analysts note that van Rompuy's elevation to the top EU post followed the same pattern as his rise in Belgian politics. He had been prodded into the post of Belgian prime minister in December 2008 by King Albert II.

Van Rompuy's wife, Geertrui Windels, told journalists in August that he "did everything not to become prime minister" of Belgium.

A father of four, van Rompuy is a 62-year-old Roman Catholic. He was trained as an economist and worked at the Belgian central bank from 1972 to 1975 before going into politics.

He gained a reputation as a fiscal conservative as Belgium's budget minister from 1993 to 1999, when he helped to drive down the country's debt.

Van Rompuy's term as president of the European Council, as his post is formally known, lasts 2 1/2 years, with a two-term maximum.

Foreign Policy Portfolio

The EU's second appointment last night was of Briton Catherine Ashton to serve as the union's new foreign policy chief. That decision also brings a relatively unknown technocrat to a post representing European interests on issues ranging from climate change and trade to security and antiterrorism operations.

Ashton's experience in the European political arena is limited to her work during the past year as the EU trade commissioner -- a post she took over from Peter Mandelson when he quit in October 2008 to become Britain's trade and industry minister.

Ashton's appointment must still be approved by the European Parliament.

Ashton on November 19 defended her surprise appointment, saying that she has "some experience" in foreign policy as well as the diplomatic and negotiating skills needed for the job:

"My very first priority has got to be the European Parliament and the hearings that I must of course go through to make sure they are able to endorse me as well -- so that will be number one,'' Ashton said. "I think, secondly, we have to look at the European External Action Service, this brand-new bringing together of what we currently do, and in a sense, adding value to what happens with the individual member states. So that's going to be very significant."

He then added the importance of "the big key relationships that we have across the world, which we will need to make sure that we foster and develop for the future."

A member of the British Labour party, Ashton rose through the political ranks without ever being elected to public office. But she has extensive experience as a social worker and as administrator in health and education.

She was born in 1956 in Upholland -- a village in Lancashire to the northeast of Liverpool in the United Kingdom.

After graduating from the University of London in 1977 with a degree in sociology, Ashton began her political career at the grassroots level -- working at Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She eventually was elected as that organization's national treasurer and deputy leader. She also worked for Britain's Social Work Training Council in 1983.

From 1983 to 1989, Ashton worked with local firms in her region to tackle inequality in business.

She went on to run a local health authority -- the Hertfordshire Health Authority -- from 1998 until 2001 and was later named to Britain's House of Lords as Baroness Ashton of Upholland.

Ashton began to make her mark in British national politics when she took on roles as the country's education minister in 2001 and positions in the constitutional affairs and justice departments.

In June 2001, she was made a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Skills. The next year, she was appointed to head Sure Start -- a British government initiative with the aim of improving child care, early education, health, and family support.

In 2004, she was named as a parliamentary under-secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. She was sworn in as a member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council -- a body of advisers to the British Queen -- in 2006.

In 2007, Ashton became parliamentary under-secretary of State in Britain's Ministry of Justice. She also was appointed in 2007 to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet as Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Privy Council.

Upon learning of her appointment, Ashton sought to pacify critics who charge that she is untested and has not paid enough dues in European politics to be given the job of EU foreign policy chief.

"We have strong relationships which I hope you'll see being recognized from the calls I have had from China, the United States, and so on already this evening, and I believe my experience will speak for itself," Ashton said. "Am I an ego on legs? No, I'm not. Do I want to be seen to be out there saying everything all the time? No, I don't. Judge me on what I do and I think you'll pleased and proud of me."

Ashton has a son, a daughter, and three stepchildren.

Her husband, former BBC political analyst Peter Kellner, is the president of the YouGov opinion polling organization -- an international Internet-based market research firm with offices in Germany, Scandinavia, the Middle East, and the United States.

Once approved, Ashton will serve a five-year term.

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