European Union flag
European Union flagIsrael news photo: EU

The European Union has elected Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the body's new full-time president after years of rotating the post on a monthly basis. Lady Catherine Ashton was elected to replace Javier Solana as the EU's foreign policy chief.

Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, elected unanimously by the 27-member entity on Thursday, assumes his post on December 1. A Flemish politician, age 62, Van Rompuy has been politically active since his youth, but has only been prime minister since December 2008. He was chairman of the Christian People's Party, a center-right Flemish party, from 1988 to 1993, and Budget Minister from 1993 to 1999. He is seen as a budget hardliner, with little expertise in foreign relations.

Baroness Catherine Ashton, Trade Commissioner to the EU for the United Kingdom, age 53, is a British Labour politician who has served in various lower-echelon government offices over the past decade. She was appointed in June 2007 by Prime Minister Gordon Brown as Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council, and in October 2008, was nominated as the UK's European Commissioner in the European Commission. According to Reuters, she is "virtually unknown in Britain" and has had little foreign affairs experience, but is adept at trade issues. Ashton also has a degree in economics.

Neither of the new leaders has extensive experience in the field of foreign relations, which has raised concern among critics, who content the pair have too low an international profile. There also appears to be no record of either candidate having any specific interactions with the State of Israel.

The leaders of France and Germany both strongly backed the appointments -- and both strongly oppose Turkey's admission to the European Union. French President Nicolas Sarkozy praising the choice as a "very wise decision" to elect a leader from "an important country but not one of the most important countries, so that no one will feel excluded." German Chancellor Angela Merkel adding "We got a candidate who brings consensus and whose political competence has long been tested and tried throughout his political career."

Impact for the Middle East?

Turkish Parliament member Onur Oymen told reporters he was concerned about what the election meant for his nation's hopes of entering the European Union. In an interview with the BBC, Oymen noted that Van Rompuy had "said a few years ago that he was totally against Turkish membership because of religious and cultural reasons."

The Qatar-based Aljazeera news network quoted Van Rompuy as saying during Belgian parliamentary debate five years ago, "Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe... The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."

Analysts have said that it may be the growing disaffection with the EU and the West that has pushed Turkey towards closer relations with Iran and its more radical Muslim neighbors in the Middle East. As it has continued tightening ties with Syria and Iran, Turkey has increasingly distanced itself from Israel and the United States.