The search for a president of Europe was both a success and a failure: the quality of the candidate approved, was overshadowed by the unsatisfactory method chosen to fill the position.

Herman Von Rompuy, the prime minister of Belgium accepted a job he did not seek. He sees his work as finding consensus among the 27 leaders who chose him to preside over the European Council. He is not expected to lead Europe further on the path to integration.

Making the choice of a president subject to back room negotiations among the heads of state/government of the EU membership reduced the stature, and the likely impact of the office. It was as if the major European leaders (French President Sarkozy, German Chancellor Merkl, and British Prime Minister Brown did not so much mind they were not being chosen European president, as they did mind that someone else would be a president, and wanted to limit his or her powers.

Under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty (which comes into effect Dec. 1) the European Union agreed to designate a President of the Council of Ministers for a two and one-half year term (renewable once).

The position was born out of compromise. Following the failure to adopt the proposed European Constitution, where a directly elected president was envisaged, the Lisbon Treaty redefined the European Council presidency (which had been held by European leaders for rotating six months terms) into a full-time position. Strikingly the post-Lisbon presidency confirms the European Union as being an inter-governmental agreement, and slows movement towards Europe as a federation of member states.

As well as naming a president, the European Council also designated a high representative for foreign policy and security, Baroness Catherine Ashton of Britain, for a five-year term. This position bears the genes of European federalism, as its occupant also becomes vice-chair of the European Commission, the body charged with administering the EU, and brings with it a budget and a clear mandate to formulate foreign policy proposals for the European Council. As well Lady Ashton is charged with setting up a diplomatic service, the European External Action Service, which will be taking up positions in capitals across the globe, as well as carrying out policies agreed by the European Council.

Having Europe speak with one voice on foreign policy was an aim of the Lisbon Treaty. As Secretary of State under Richard Nixon in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger famously asked: “who do I call when I want to call Europe?”

Ashton takes over a better defined foreign ministry, but the enhanced institutional support does not lessen the tensions between the 27 member states about what European foreign policy should look like.

Every time Europeans have been ready to choose more integration among member states, they have chosen instead to expand the membership. From the initial three Benelux countries, to the Europe of six, of nine, of 12 and 15, to the much enlarged European Union of 27 today, at every step the project has been about creating a common economic space, without forging a concomitant political unity.

French president Sarkozy first backed Tony Blair for the position of European president, hoping to head off the anti-European attack that will come from Britain with the expected election next year of a Conservative Eurosceptic government to replace Gordon Brown and New Labour. Blair proved unacceptable to the social democratic, socialist and green party groupings at the European parliament. It was hoped that David Miliband, British Foreign Minister, could be recruited to the new European Foreign policy position. When he demurred (to pursue Brown’s job when it opens?) Ashton was put forward by Britain. With a left, woman candidate, the presidency became open to a conservative male.

Interestingly, if Miliband (son of the respected Marxist political sociologist Ralph Miliband who was originally from Belgium) had said yes, the candidacy of former (1999-2007) Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga for the presidency would have been a real option. Born in Riga, Latvia, she spent most of her life in Canada teaching in the psychology department at the University of Montreal from 1965 until 1998, when she returned to her native land, and swiftly took on the top political job.

Duncan Cameron writes from France.