“I did not find the job, it found me. I did not seek it, but it sought me”
— Herman Van Rompuy, 2009
Camera shy, soft-spoken and a poet. In this day and age of celebrity politics, these are hardly the characteristics of a politician. But Herman Van Rompuy, elected in November 2009 as permanent President of the European Council to the EU, is a brilliant paradox. Both a shrewd politician and a well-known composer of Haiku poetry, the election of this former Belgian prime minister has created a buzz on the global stage.
Born in the Etterbeek district of Brussels in 1947, Van Rompuy graduated from the Catholic University of Leuven with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. But for his post-graduate studies, Van Rompuy traded his works of Plato for those of Keynes in pursuit of a master’s degree in economics.
Van Rompuy began his career at the National Bank of Belgium in 1972, but it was his political acumen that showed promise, beginning in 1973 with his involvement in one of the major political parties in Belgium, the Flemish Christian Democratic Party, known as the CVP. Climbing the ranks to head the party in 1988, Van Rompuy then went on to become Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Budget five years later. Known as a tough fiscal conservative, Van Rompuy’s shined as budget minister, trimming Belgium’s soaring debt from 135% of the GDP in 1993 to below 100% in 2003.
But Belgium’s troubles were not just economic. During the “2007-2008 Political Crisis”, the country entered into a period of instability, with different ethnic factions vying for control. By then, Van Rompuy had become the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Belgium’s legislative lower house. In an attempt to avoid a political meltdown of the country’s governance, King Albert II subjected Van Rompuy to 90 minutes of intense persuasion to become Prime Minister. Van Rompuy reluctantly agreed, entering the eye of the storm. In the end, Van Rompuy’s steely calm and knack for compromise calmed the choppy waters of Belgium’s fragile state and saved the country from splitting asunder.
The country’s equally fragile economy, tumbling with the economic crisis, regained balance as Van Rompuy patched the cracks in Belgium’s financial walls efficiently. The government acted swiftly by bailing out prominent banks and following divestment strategies, stabilizing Belgium’s economy. During Van Rompuy’s 11 month reign as Prime Minister of Belgium, the country saw relative political stability and the gradual withdrawal of separatist tensions.
When he is not crafting political rescue strategies or shoring up his country’s economy, Van Rompuy pens haikus, 17 syllable poems in the Japanese style, often during his daily meetings. Perhaps the best known is the one he recited recently at a press conference to urge cooperation between Belgium, Spain and Hungary, “Three waves. Roll into port together. The trio is home.” He is also credited with publishing six books on economics and politics. Van Rompuy is known to escape the unsettled world by frequenting the calm of Affligem Abbey, an 11th century Benedictine monastery nestled in the Belgium woods.
Skeptics point out that Van Rompuy is hardly known outside Belgium and this limited global exposure could diminish his worth as a representative of Europe. But the new President’s relative newness may be his biggest advantage, as Fraser Cameron, head of Belgium’s E.U. –Russia Center pointed out, Van Rompuy “has the big asset of not being in office long enough to make many enemies. He’s very much an unknown quantity.” Yet, with a motto in life “rustige vastheid” or “quiet determination,” Van Rompuy’s externally placid demeanor belies his resoluteness on issues ranging from the exclusion of Turkey in the EU to taxes on financial transactions.
Beginning on January 1, 2010, Van Rompuy is poised to take on his new role, already making it clear that his plans include revving up economic growth, reducing EU unemployment rates and fighting global warming. However, Europe’s gain will be Belgium’s loss. A poll by Euronews found that Belgium’s residents are reluctant to lose the steady hand that has soothed the nerves of the restive country. According to one resident, “It would mean political instability in Belgium. A good thing for Europe, a bad thing for Belgium!”
So will Van Rompuy, the bespectacled, slightly built 62-year old, succeed in weaving his magic on the whole of Europe? Given Van Rompuy’s past track record, Europe might be in for a pleasant surprise.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2018