Tuesday

29th Sep 2020

Interview

Herman Van Rompuy on power and influence in the EU

  • Belgium's former EU Council president Herman van Rompuy (left) with the author (Photo: Milos Labovic)

In your book and speeches you often refer to politics as an interplay of coincidences. What coincidence helped you become president of the European Council?

Well, in my case I can pinpoint exactly the coincidence that made me president of the European Council. In order to become president of the European Council you need to be or have been a head of state or government. I became a head by coincidence. Yves Leterme, then the current prime minister of Belgium had to resign over an unfortunate matter. So I became prime minister of Belgium by coincidence. Without this coincidence I would have never become president of the European Council.

Yet, at one point you decided it was something you wanted?

That realisation came very, very late. The first time it was mentioned to me was by the then secretary-general of the Council, Pierre de Boissieu. He called me for a meeting, and I had a feeling he wanted to see me to discuss the position of president of the European Council.

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  • Rompuy presenting German chancellor Angela Merkel a T-shirt signed by all member state leaders for her birthday in 2014 (Photo: Council of European Union)

Bear in mind that the Lisbon Treaty (creating the post of president of the European Council) still had to be ratified. And it turned out he indeed wanted to know if I was interested in the position. I told him that I wasn't because I had just become prime minister of Belgium and I didn't want to leave the post fearing the collapse of the government if I left.

Later, newspapers like the Figaro started reporting on three potential candidates: Jan Peter Balkenende, Jean-Claude Juncker and myself. My diplomats discarded the idea as nonsense. For me, the reporting was convenient as it gave me a certain prestige in my home country.

In November I received a call from the Swedish head of government, to tell me that I was his candidate. I told him immediately that I was not planning on leaving Belgian politics. Ten minutes later the French president called to ask me 'what do you think you are doing?' Apparently, he was pushing my candidacy. I told him that the only way I was willing to accept the position was if I had unanimous support by all the member states. Or else it would be very difficult to explain to the public why I was leaving Belgian politics. Two days later it was announced that I was appointed with unanimous support.

The only person who apparently didn't know until the last moment was Jean-Claude Juncker. He thought he had support until the very last moment. A week later I was giving my farewell speech in the Belgian parliament and the same evening I went to the council to be installed. It was really surreal.

You make it sound like you didn't have to put up a fight to get this position? Nor something of a plan?

Not at all! There was no fight or struggle involved. And there certainly wasn't a plan or programme. The ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon was still up in the air.

Once I was elected, the institution was not ready to host me. I had a desk and an office where civil servants would not want to sit and work. More generally, I don't think you can get to this kind of position with 'a plan'. These positions are very much pegged to persons. You are not elected on the basis of a political programme you campaigned for.

And even if I had had a plan think what kind of joke that would have been. Just a couple of months in office and I was immediately faced with the Greek crisis. All plans would have been thrown in the rubbish bin. The same happened to my successor Donald Tusk. When he became president he was faced with the refugee crisis.

But also look at the current president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. She got elected and only afterwards came up with a programme. Talk about coincidence. She wasn't even in the running for a very long time! Everybody was thinking it would be Weber or Timmermans.

Besides, as politicians we are all jumping on a moving train. After you have campaigned a half year for change, you are confronted with the same limitations of the state budget as the previous government. And then political reality takes over.

For me it was the Greek crisis. When I took office, I was afraid I would give the impression I had nothing to do as European Council president. So I asked the chief-of-cabinet to organise an informal council on the slow economy (which at the time stood at 1 percent growth). When the time for the Council came, it was entirely devoted to the Greek crisis. We are always reminded of the words of former British prime minister Harold Macmillian, when asked what he feared most: "Events, dear boy, events".

As president of the European Council you give guidance to a wide range of powerful politicians. How much schoolyard-dynamics do you see back at this highest level of EU politics?

Well, I take a bit of offence at the term schoolyard-dynamics, it makes politics at this stage sound a bit banal. At the same time, I joined the youth wing of my party when I was 16, and I admit that the patterns and the dynamics from those times were always the same at each stage of my career.

The two biggest differences were the procedures and of course the stakes. The stakes get higher and higher. But other than that, politics and the dynamics of politics seem the same everywhere. It is about listening to people, colliding ambitions and, yes, sometimes politics is confrontation.

What aspect of the job did you struggle with the most?

Looking back I think it would have really helped if I had had more experience in foreign affairs. I knew a lot of leaders, like Nicolas Sarkozy for example, but I had never worked with him on something. I couldn't rely or fall back on any foreign affairs experience. Knowing what I know now, I would have liked to have had that experience entering this job.

I had only attended two European Council meetings, and I had to chair the third one as president. In comparison, Tusk was already seven years a prime minister when he became president of the Council. He had already been to numerous European Councils before becoming president. I lacked similar experience.

I did make a simple but important decision that helped me out greatly. I decided I would visit all the national leaders in their home countries within a year. That proved to be very valuable. I continued doing this in the five years that I was president.

This leads me to point out another challenge of a European Council president: the team changes formation every couple of months because of elections in the member states.

Almost every European Council you are welcoming a new member. By the end of my term, two-thirds of the heads were different from the beginning. So I also made sure I would fly to the home countries of the newcomers in order to set a good basis.

What makes a successful EU Council president?

Well, first of all you have to show others what you are made of. But most importantly, you need to be able to build trust. If anything, I succeeded in keeping the group together.

In all honesty, I was helped by the crisis. The crisis really stimulated the group feeling. Our backs were against the wall and we needed to stick with each other. Interest rates were going up and we needed to show unity. Tusk told me once that the European Council that I presided over didn't exist anymore, simply because there isn't a crisis of that magnitude.

Apart from containing the euro crisis you also had another big file - getting the multi-annual financial framework adopted. How did you pull that off?

Well, the first big negotiations took place in November. I entered the council meeting with the proposals from the European Commission. Those proposals were too ambitious and I knew we were never going to get those adopted. But I used the November meeting also to show that there was a stalemate.

I do want to point out that there were countries that were flexible. Like Germany for example. However, we made the decision then that we would postpone the negotiations to February. The civil servants didn't agree with this, but sometimes it's best not to listen to civil servants. Sometimes civil servants tend to behave like politicians, but they really are not.

In the run up to the February Council I decided to forego all overly ambitious parts of the MFF proposals. I thought to my- self, "I am not going to lose time on big reforms". We had just come out of the euro-crisis and I was hellbent to avoid an MFF crisis. So I dropped big reforms like on own-resources. Also, I decided to let the UK have its rebate. Then I talked with each and every member state to find out what was important to them. My cabinet tried to get as many points as possible on board so that in February we wouldn't have to deal with details.

During the February Council I talked with member states individually or in groups. Actually we rarely discussed things in plenary.

There was one dramatic moment when Italy and France approached and said there was no point in negotiating because they thought I would never be able to get the deal through the European Parliament. Fortunately Germany helped me convince them otherwise.

As time progressed, we gained momentum and I had the feeling that everybody was looking to get a deal done.

In the end only Latvia had some last small demands. In the final minutes of negotiations, I told them: "I will give you what you want but this is the last thing. The shop is closed". This won me applause from the heads of state. When we did send it to the European Parliament I was confident the deal would go through.

I heard that Martin Schulz, the president of the parliament, was staying up all night to prevent me from persuading parliamentarians to vote for the deal. In reality I didn't negotiate at all. For me the debate with the European parliament was a non-event. I knew they were not going to block the budget.

You have dealt with the biggest crises of Eu- rope and the most difficult files. A tremendous amount of pressure must have been put on you. How do you deal with that?

I never felt pressure, even during the most difficult times. It's simply not in my character. I don't have the gift of drama. When you are intensively trying to solve a problem, you also become less aware of outside forces. At the same time, it also helps not to overestimate your own personal role, or the role of the European Council president in this case. Moreover, I was never alone. I had the help of the likes of Angela Merkel and Sarkozy. Merkel was at the zenith of her power during my period as Council president.

How would you define power in the EU context? I guess it is different than in a national context?

I don't think we should exaggerate the difference between power dynamics in the national capitals and the EU. A lot has been said about the decentralised nature of power in the EU.

However I have been around long enough to know that in national politics it is not much different. Politicians never operate from a standalone position. They receive signals from society. The media also play an important role. The idea that a strong charismatic leader can push ideas through is obsolete. The same goes for parties. Within parties there are different streams and wings. What is specific for Europe is that it is very much a sum of all its parts.

When a head of state goes to the European Council, he not only represents his member state but also his coalition. In any given European government there are two to three parties. So within a European Council you are actually negotiating be- tween 3 x 27 parties. This makes it impossible for any man or woman to be a dominant factor, no matter how much charisma this person has. And I guess that is a good thing.

You see power is like manure, it should be spread, never piled up.

This interview is an excerpt from the book EU Superlobby – Winning in Brussels by Milos Labovic

Author bio

Milos Labovic is the author of EU Superlobby, for which he interviewed 2009-2014 EU Council president Herman van Rompuy on power and influence in Brussels.

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