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EU Leaders Choose Belgian Premier for Top Job

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Herman Van Rompuy (AP)

EU leaders on Thursday handed the European Union's top new jobs to two little-known compromise figures — Belgium's prime minister and the EU's trade commissioner — dashing hopes of those who wanted to raise the continent's global profile.

EU's summit host said Belgium's Van Rompuy will be "excellent" as European Union president.

The choice caps years of choppy efforts to give a united Europe a voice on the world stage commensurate with its economic heft. The EU leaders agreed on trade commissioner Catherine Ashton of Britain as the EU's new foreign policy chief and Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as its president, diplomats said.

But their appointments suggested the need for compromise outweighed the desire for big names like Tony Blair, the former British leader who was once considered a leading contender for the presidential job.

The two new officials are supposed to give the EU a bigger role in such global issues as climate change, terrorism and trade amid the rise of China, Brazil and India.

Van Rompuy says employment and the environment are urgent concerns.

The two top jobs were created by an EU reform treaty that takes effect in less than two weeks, on Dec. 1. The treaty is vague on what the EU president is supposed to do, other than encourage more European integration.

While the EU president was initially seen as the bigger job, much attention has shifted to the foreign minister, who gets a say over the bloc's annual euro7 billion ($10.5 billion) foreign aid budget and will head a new 5,000-strong EU diplomatic corps.

Ashton, who has never been elected to public office and is largely unknown outside Britain, had seemed an unlikely choice. She won the foreign policy brief after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and left-leaning leaders from Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia, Portugal and Austria decided to put her name forward.

Ashton, 53, was a junior minister and leader of the House of Lords in 2007 and had a history as an anti-nuclear weapons campaigner.

She has barely caused a ripple during her year as EU trade chief and has no known foreign policy experience. She signed a trade pact with South Korea, stalled global negotiations at the World Trade Organization and helping defrost trade relations with the U.S. after President George W. Bush left office.

Van Rompuy was put forward for the president's job by Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt who chaired Thursday's summit, diplomats said.

Before the summit, Van Rompuy met with Belgium's King Albert to discuss the possible selection of his successor as premier.

Van Rompuy, 62, is a technocrat with a penchant for haiku poetry. A Dutch-speaking Christian Democrat, he is unknown abroad, and even in Belgium he keeps a low profile. Or as a Belgian commentator recently put it: "Van Rompuy opens his mouth only to breathe."

He drifted into the Belgian premiership in 2008 when his predecessor got bogged down in a nasty linguistic dispute between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and often-outspoken Premier Nicolas Sarkozy of France did not reveal a preference before the meeting.

The EU leaders have been at pains to strike the right balance between big countries and small, rich and poor, east and west, socialists and conservatives.

Britain had been pushing for a high-profile president. Others like France and Spain favored a low-profile person limited to chairing summits and greeting foreign dignitaries.

Britain's Brown opted to promote Ashton as foreign policy chief after he realized Blair had no backing from other EU leaders.

Smaller EU nations loathed the idea of being led by Blair, whose strong support for the Iraq war angered many Europeans. They also have expressed the desire a president from a country that uses the EU's common euro currency and participates in its passport-free travel zone. Britain has opted out of those EU projects.