EU president takes office as Lisbon Treaty comes into force

The European Union's first president, Herman Van Rompuy, officially took office Tuesday as the bloc's reforming Lisbon Treaty went into effect. The treaty is designed to boost the EU's global standing by streamlining its institutions.


AFP - The EU's first president, Herman Van Rompuy, officially took office Tuesday as the bloc's reforming Lisbon Treaty entered into force, giving the European project a human face as it enters a new era.

British peer Catherine Ashton at the same time became the European Union's foreign policy supremo, a post already dubbed "EU foreign minister".

The treaty, drawn up to replace the aborted EU constitution, is designed to boost the bloc's global standing and streamline the institutions which represent half a billion people.

"The Treaty of Lisbon puts citizens at the centre of the European project" EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement.

"I'm delighted that we now have the right institutions to act and a period of stability so that we can focus all our energy on delivering what matters to our citizens," he added, in reference to the years of institutional navel-gazing which end with the treaty coming into effect.

The treaty will also reinforce the EU parliament's role and cut the number of national vetoes on European policy.


"The EU will be better equipped to meet expectations in the fields of energy, climate change, cross-border crime and immigration. It will also be able to speak with a stronger voice on the international scene," promised Barroso.

But most attention is on the two new top jobs, the most immediate and visible effects of the treaty which came into being at midnight (2300 GMT Monday).

The 27 EU heads of state and government chose Van Rompuy, who was the serving Belgian prime minister, for the top jobs at a summit this month after much behind-the-scenes horse-trading.

His post, the President of the European Council is for a two-and-a-half year term renewable once.

One goal is to give the EU a more stable leadership than the current system, whereby the EU presidency rotates among the member states every six months.

The leaders also chose Ashton, who was EU trade commissioner, to become the bloc's high representative for foreign and security affairs for a straight five years.

She replaces Spaniard Javier Solana, who steps down as head of European diplomacy after 10 years. However the role is significantly expanded under the treaty and comes with a huge new diplomatic corps.

The choice of the relatively unknown pair leaves them plenty of convincing to do if they are to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the US and China in negotiations.

Europe's first president will be "more of a 'chairman president' than a leader president'," according to the Robert Schuman Foundation think-tank.

It may suit some of the bigger EU nations not to have a political big beast presiding over them.

The national leaders will certainly have been attracted by Van Rompuy's ability to keep a fragile Belgian coalition government together during his 11 months in office.


Ashton, who proudly asserts she is not an "ego on legs," has nonetheless quickly built up a reputation in Brussels as a quiet but effective negotiator.

But she in particular has come in for criticism due to her lack of diplomatic experience and doubts have been cast over the wisdom of choosing someone from Britain, given its failure to embrace key European concepts such as the euro and the Schengen open borders zone.

A ceremony to mark the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, and the positions it creates, will take in the Portuguese capital Tuesday, where the text was first signed, with Van Rompuy and Ashton attending.

The treaty also enshrines a European charter of fundamental rights -- though Britain, Poland and the Czech Republic have secure full or partial opt outs.

In another innovation, the text gives Europe's citizens the possibility of directly initiating policy ideas, if a million signatures are collected.

The treaty also sets up a process whereby a country can leave the group altogether.

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