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EU spots close to filled

It now seems close to certain that Herman Van Rompuy, the prime minister of Belgium, will be EU president, and Catherine Ashton, currently the EU trade commissioner and the former leader of the British House of Lords, will be foreign-policy czar.

The picks have a symmetry thought necessary in Europe: Rompuy and Ashton are male and female, from a small country and a large one, conservative and liberal.

They are also expected and surprising. Rompuy has for weeks been considered a frontrunner for president. Ashton -- decently known in Britain and on the continent, but barely known elsewhere -- is something of a surprise. The BBC and other outlets report that up until the very end of negotiations, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pushed for former PM Tony Blair to win the top spot. Germany and other big continental countries advocated for Rompuy, and won; Brown and social-democrats then pushed Ashton through.

Ultimately, Ashton is the more interesting pick. I believe the foreign-policy gig will end up being the vastly more influential one -- Ashton will control thousands of civil servants and a large budget, and will have powers to set policy priorities for the EU. It is unclear just what Rompuy's staffing and responsibilities will be.

But is Ashton qualified enough? Prominent enough? And might any countries object? She has an important job as trade commissioner, but has only been in it for a year. We'll have answers to those questions -- as well as to how transformative these positions might be -- when she and Rompuy take office next month.

Matt Yglesias has some good commentary on the new team and the importance these positions might have, as well as a useful explanation of Ashton's formal title (she is known as Lady Ashton, Baroness of Upholland -- not because she inherited a barony, but because she won an honorific title when she joined the House of Lords). And we'll post any more interesting updates here.

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Who's going to be the president of Europe?

Today, the way Europe functions as a political bloc might change dramatically. In a matter of hours, we should have official word from Brussels as to the new presient and foreign-policy chief of the European Union: positions hashed out over the course of a decade and finally approved by the passage of the Lisbon Treaty, which might -- just might -- give Europe a much more powerful and unified presence on the international stage.

We'll have the latest, as soon as we hear, here.

At this point, the most-tipped favorite for president is Herman van Rompuy, the prime minister of Belgium. And British papers have already announced Catherine Ashton (the Baroness of Upholland, naturally), a somewhat obscure former leader of the House of Lords and current EU trade commissioner, as foreign-policy chief.