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Dividing up the roles of Europe's new class of leaders

Europe suddenly has a new leadership - how will the new post of President of the European Council, held by Belgian Herman Van Rompuy (pictured), square itself alongside José Luis Zapatero's Spanish presidency of the EU?


Spanish president José Luis Zapatero’s European presidency has barely begun, but he already has a rival in the the brand new post of President of the European Council, held by Belgian Herman Van Rompuy.

Zapatero held a meeting in Madrid on Tuesday to discuss the financial crisis with what has been dubbed a “council of wise men” including Jacques Delors, a former French finance minister who held the post of European Commission president from 1985-1995. The meeting, which also included former Spanish PM Felipe Gonzalez, was aimed at discussing a project for “European economic governance”.

It is not out of the ordinary that Zapatero would hold such a meeting, given that Spain now holds the rotating EU presidency until June 2010. However, some experts wonder at the timing of the meeting, coming as it does one day after Van Rompuy called an emergency economic meeting for Feb. 11 in Brussels, with a similar agenda.

Too many cooks

FRANCE 24’s European Affairs editor, Caroline de Camaret, said that the timing of Zapatero’s meeting and Rompuy’s announcement hints at a competition for power between Zapatero and Rompuy, who assumed his new post on Jan. 1 of this year.

“Van Rompuy marked his territory right away by announcing the summit in Brussels on the hot-button issue of the moment, the global financial crisis,” said de Camaret.

As for Zapatero, says de Camaret, “His role is lessened somewhat, the spotlight has been stolen from him.”

As if the creation of the brand new President of the European Council position weren’t confusing enough, there is still the matter of José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU. As De Camaret observed, “Barroso will want to play a role, too; we can count on a cacophony of voices in the EU leadership.”

Division of labour

The matter, of course, is not a mere battle of individual egos, but one of larger import, ie the role of the President of the European Commission versus that of whichever state holds the rotating EU presidency.

FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor Armen Georgian explains how the tasks are to be divided up: “Van Rompuy chairs the European Union summit, the highest level meetings.” As for Spain, its role may have diminished but “it’s not going to lie low in the next six months,” said Georgian.

“Spain still chairs the weekly meetings of the member states’ ambassadors and that’s where a lot of the compromises are worked out before the big summits of the heads of state,” Gerogian explained. Furthermore, Spain “still chairs all kinds of committees in the council on agriculture, health and so on.”

Von Rompuy, Zapatero and Barroso will meet to discuss the financial crisis further on Friday in Madrid with Zapatero seeking to ensure a coordinated approach.


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