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25th Sep 2022

'Haiku Herman' quietly leaves EU stage

  • Van Rompuy once called himself a 'grey mouse' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy on Monday (1 December) is handing over the baton to Polish ex-prime minister Donald Tusk.

It is a minimalist event: a handshake, a few words, followed by a little drink with the staff of the European Council.

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Quite the opposite of European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, who held numerous farewell speeches, interviews, and self-promoting events in his last weeks in office.

But Van Rompuy, a Belgian politician little-known outside his country and with no global ambitions, who once called himself "a grey mouse", remained true to his nature: no glam, no pomp, no big farewell.

The 67-year old is leaving politics altogether, looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren and teaching a few classes at Belgian universities, including the College of Europe.

His legacy is not insignificant.

It overlapped with the eurozone crisis during which the former Belgian prime minister chaired countless meetings of EU leaders quarrelling about bailouts, whether to keep Greece in the eurozone or not, or if printing money is a solution because austerity is too harsh.

What ensued may not be a clear-cut success - unemployment is still very high in Greece and Spain, the economy is sluggish, euro-scepticism and nationalist scaremongering are still issues in several countries.

But the eurozone stayed intact, after several make-or-break moments. A permanent bailout fund - initially an "out-of-the-question" idea for Germany - exists. There is more scrutiny over national budgets - but as the latest case with France and Italy shows, the rules are quite "flexible" and now the focus is shifting on more investments rather than more austerity.

Fewer gestures, more power

Unlike Barroso, who was already in charge of the EU commission for his second term, Van Rompuy had to start from scratch as his office was a novelty of the Lisbon Treaty which came into force on 1 December 2009.

He had been a Belgian prime minister only for a year, but was seen as a skilled negotiator, who managed to accommodate the clashing views of Flemish and Walloon parties. As he recalled in an interview with a Belgian newspaper, it was French president Nicolas Sarkozy who persuaded him to take up the job.

Three months later, he was already chairing the first summit, an informal gathering in a Brussels' library, where EU leaders for the first time discussed the idea of bailing out Greece.

"He was unassuming, he was interested in getting things done. Van Rompuy didn't care about protocol details such as who gets to speak first on stage, him or Barroso," one EU official recalls.

And yet it was Van Rompuy, not Barroso, who shaped the EU agenda, who managed to secure a deal on the EU budget after months of quarrels among leaders, and who was appointed several times to draft plans on how the eurozone architecture should look like to avoid future crises.

Because many of the deals brokered by Van Rompuy ended up more or less in line with what Germany wanted, Van Rompuy, who speaks German and who is a devout Christian, was criticised of being a pawn in the hands of chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the Christian Democratic Union.

"He was often accused of being buddies with Merkel, of rubber-stamping whatever came out of Berlin. This is not true, there were lots of tense moments," one of his close aides told EUobserver.

This was mostly because of the economy on which the Germans are "in complete denial", as the source put it.

But overall, leaders respected him for his discreet, behind-closed-doors diplomacy.

Except for Matteo Renzi, Italy's new prime minister, who came in this year and who made a point of publicly criticising Van Rompuy for "wasting" his time and not "preparing well enough" for a June summit, where leaders failed to agree on his candidate, Federica Mogherini, to become the next EU foreign affairs chief.

Mogherini got the job two months later, but the animosity between Van Rompuy and Renzi remained, also because the EU council chief had sought to build consensus around Enrico Letta as his successor, a move Renzi saw as a personal affront, since he had toppled Letta just months earlier.

Hollande hesitated in top-post battle

The top posts deal, which in the end heralded Poland's prime minister Donald Tusk as council chief and Mogherini as foreign affairs chief, could have played out very differently had the French president, Francois Hollande, steered Renzi and not the other way around.

"Had Hollande rallied his troops in June and said 'we Socialists want the council post', they would have gotten it," the EU source said.

But Hollande hesitated on fully endorsing Danish prime minister Helle Thorning Schmidt for the job, because she was perceived as 'not a real Socialist' and by the time he realised that the Socialists were only going to get the foreign affairs post, it was too late.

Apart from high-level politics, Van Rompuy has also developed a passion for short Japanese-styled verses (haiku) such as "The sun is rising / sleeping yet in Europe / but still the same sun," which he recited at the end of a press conference in Tokyo.

His haikus were published in 2010, when he said: "I know that I am the only poet among the EU leaders. But I hope I won't just be remembered for being a poet."

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