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Newly appointed European Union President Herman Van Rompuy. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Newly appointed European Union President Herman Van Rompuy. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Europe chooses a quiet president Add to ...

Europeans had barely finished their dinners Thursday night when they were introduced to their George Washington, the man who had been selected by the leaders of their countries in a closed-door meeting to be the first permanent president of the world's largest economy and the chief representative of 500 million people.

It was the shock of the strange. Few in Europe have heard of Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian head of government, and many were doubtless startled by what they saw: a bespectacled man whose dishevelled hair producing a mad-scientist aura, avoiding eye contact with the camera as he spoke shyly in three languages and made a most unpresidential pledge: "I will remain discreet."

For a continent that has wrestled for years with the question of its leadership, it was a moment of bathos. After years of disputes and referendums, months of high-level deliberation and a short dinner meeting of national leaders Thursday night, the unobtrusive Belgian Prime Minster was selected as the ultimate compromise candidate.

Mr. Van Rompuy, as President of the EU's top body, the European Council, and the man who will represent the continent at summits, was joined by the continent's first foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, a woman who may be better known in Canada than she is in her native Britain, as she has spent this year as European trade commissioner, negotiating the Canada-EU free-trade deal. She has a year's experience in foreign affairs.

And with that, Europe effectively gave up its ambition, so palpable a year ago, to become one of the world's major powers.

In closed-door meetings during the past several weeks, the leaders of France and Germany, according to diplomats, decided to avoid the sort of figure who might speak as an equal with Barack Obama and Hu Jintao in international forums.

In part, this was because the only real candidate for a strong-president role was Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, who had the appropriate traffic-stopping clout and international recognition. But he proved divisive: As a figure from the left-wing Labour Party, he did not please Europe's new conservative majority, who wanted someone from their dominant European People's Party to fill the post.

But the decision also signals a larger retreat for Europe, away from its recent global ambitions.

This year began strongly, with European leaders joining forces to propose the rebuilding of the collapsed world economy and banking system, promoting next month's Copenhagen summit as the key to global climate-change unity, proposing the Europe-dominated G20 as the world's financial problem solver, and making serious proposals to have the euro replace the dollar as the world's major reserve currency.

This has been a long autumn of disappointment on most of those fronts.

Europe and the United States have gone in separate directions on many financial and regulatory matters. The Copenhagen consensus has dissolved before the beginning of the summit. The euro, while strong, is no closer to becoming a reserve currency. And the big issues of the world - the economy, Iran's nuclear plans, the Middle East, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq - continue to be dominated by Washington.

Europe is increasingly divided into left and right, rich and poor, east and west. Some countries are recovering fast from the downturn, while others, such as Hungary, Estonia and Ireland, are in terrible shape. On paper, Mr. Van Rompuy is the right man for the moment: He is the Belgian leader who almost single-handedly ended a divide between his country's French-speaking and Dutch-speaking communities. He is a backroom consensus builder.

But the job, vaguely described in the new constitution, is essentially defined by the person holding it. At minimum, the president is nothing more than a conduit for the views of 27 elected leaders; a stronger personality could make more of it. Europe, then, has chosen this moment to turn inward.

"Some of the prime ministers are more inclined to take a minimalist solution to the presidency," the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt warned Thursday night, "and that would reduce our ability to have a clear voice in the world - it would be, from our standpoint, a historic missed opportunity."

It was, in the end, exactly such a triumph of minimalism over ambition.

History, in essence, had its revenge last night. The European Union was created in the postwar decades out of a mutual desire to prevent the horrors of the 20th century from recurring - to unite against the threat of self-serving nations, demagogic strongman leaders, cults of personality.

And it has succeeded all too well. As dangers loomed from outside, Europe last night decided to retreat into the reassuring safety of the grey bureaucrat.

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