Poland's Tusk, Italy's Mogherini get EU top jobs

Brussels (AFP) - European leaders have 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.

"I come to Brussels from a country that deeply believes in the significance of Europe," the centre-right Tusk told a news conference with Van Rompuy and Mogherini.

He insisted that "no reasonable person can imagine the EU without the UK" and pledged to do everything possible to meet London's demands for reform.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was "delighted" by Tusk's appointment and by his comments.

Tusk will take office on December 1 while Mogherini, if confirmed by the European Parliament, will start her new job on November 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 eurozone bailouts as prime minister and Poland not being a member of the single currency.

- 'Polish my English' -

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 December 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.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said the choice of the next EU president was "a recognition of Poland's achievement and its place in Europe."

Mogherini, Italy's 41-year-old foreign minister, has long been a favourite 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.

The White House congratulated Tusk and Mogherini.

"As we advance security and prosperity around the world, the United States has no more important partner than Europe," the White House statement read.

Mogherini's candidacy initially faced fierce resistance, with Eastern European countries -- and reportedly British officials -- criticising 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-centre 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.