BRUSSELS (AFP) ― European leaders Saturday named Polish Premier Donald Tusk the next EU president and Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini to head its diplomatic service as the bloc faces a series of challenges topped by Ukraine.
Tusk, who speaks only halting English and no French, is the first eastern European to hold such a senior post in the EU and is known as a tough critic of the Kremlin, especially over the Ukraine crisis.
“The suspense is up, the new EU leadership team is complete,” said current EU President Herman Van Rompuy moments after the announcement was made.
Van Rompuy said the new team faced three major challenges: the stagnating European economy, the crisis in Ukraine which he called “the gravest threat to continental security since the Cold War,” and Britain’s place in the EU.
|European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (center) holds the hands of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (left) and Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini during a news conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Saturday. (AP-Yonhap)|
“I come to Brussels from a country that deeply believes in the significance of Europe,” the center-right Tusk told a news conference with Van Rompuy and Mogherini.
Tusk will take office on Dec. 1 while Mogherini, if confirmed by the European Parliament, will start her new job on Nov. 1.
Strongly backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 57-year-old Tusk is a pro-European free marketeer with roots in Poland’s Solidarity anti-Soviet trade union who has been prime minister since 2007.
Merkel said Tusk “faced big challenges” and lauded him as “a qualified, committed and passionate European, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years after the end of the Cold War.”
He will also head up summits of the countries that use the euro, despite years of questioning the wisdom of euro zone bailouts as prime minister and Poland not being a member of the single currency.
Tusk denied his poor command of foreign languages would handicap him as EU president, a job that requires a deft touch to find compromise amid conflicting positions and prepare European leaders for often delicate summits.
“Don’t worry, I will ‘Polish’ my English and be 100 percent ready on Dec. 1,” Tusk said in English, punning on the word for his nationality and showing a command of the language one journalist openly questioned at the press conference.
Mogherini, Italy’s 41-year-old foreign minister, has long been a favorite to replace Catherine Ashton as head of the EU’s foreign service, hailed by her supporters as a new, younger face for Europe.
“I hope I can join the new energy of the new European generation that is there not only among the EU citizens but also in the EU political leadership,” Mogherini said.
With leaders unnerved by Russia’s latest actions in Ukraine, the nomination of Tusk to replace Belgium’s Van Rompuy could send a message of resolve to Moscow as EU leaders also mull fresh sanctions against Moscow.
Mogherini’s candidacy initially faced fierce resistance, with Eastern European countries ― and reportedly British officials ― criticizing her as both inexperienced and too soft on Russia.
She was initially sidelined at a first EU summit in July. But six weeks later, and after Italy staunchly backed more sanctions against Russia, Mogherini, who speaks fluent English and French, was put in a stronger position.
“I know the challenges are huge, especially in these times of crisis,” Mogherini said.
“All around Europe we have crisis.”
Hours before the summit, left-of-center EU leaders meeting in Paris formally backed her as the bloc’s new foreign policy chief.
“I have high hopes that she will be chosen,” said French President Francois Hollande, eager to see a socialist and southern European in a top role.