“Au revoir and thank you to Mr Van Rompuy”
by Tony Barber , FT
It’s time to say “thank you” to Herman Van Rompuy. Mr Van Rompuy, 66, is nearing the end of five years as the first full-time president of the European Council, which groups the 28-member EU’s national leaders. He has done the job shrewdly, unselfishly, professionally and without losing sight of the ideal of European peace, democracy, prosperity and unity that motivated him to enter public life. If Donald Tusk, the former Polish premier who will replace him in November, does the job as well as Mr Van Rompuy, the EU will have picked wisely. I am optimistic about Mr Tusk. No one could have found a way to survive the snake pit of post-communist Polish politics, as he has done, without being adept at winning friends, forging compromises and having a ruthless streak when necessary. He is pragmatic but not spineless, charming but not slippery. He will be a helpful bridge between France, Germany and the UK.
These are the skills the Council president needs. You don’t have to be Franklin Roosevelt, rallying your people in their time of greatest despair and inspiring them to accomplish great collective feats. On the other hand, you mustn’t be slapdash in your political calculations and give the impression that you can’t provide leadership in a crisis – we’ve got a few of those in various EU capitals. When EU leaders chose Mr Van Rompuy in November 2009, they were making a statement that they didn’t want a European Council president who would overshadow themselves or EU institutions, notably the European Commission and the European Parliament. In other words, they didn’t want a Tony Blair or a Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. At that time Mr Van Rompuy was little known outside Belgium, where he had served as prime minister for less than a year. He was derided in some quarters, especially anti-EU British political circles and media, as a “grey mouse”. To anyone who knew him, this was nonsense. Some readers will remember Mrs Peignoir, a French character in the TV series Fawlty Towers, who says to the hotel-owner Basil Fawlty: “I think beneath that English exterior throbs a passion that would make Lord Byron look like a tobacconist.” It’s like that, up to a point, with Mr Van Rompuy.
He is a devout Catholic, he writes haiku, and he has a philosophical turn of phrase. “Some people believe they are important. I do important things but I am not important,” he once said. He also has a sense of humour alternately whimsical and razor-sharp. He hadn’t been in the EU Council job very long before critics accused him of power-grabbing by intervening in high-level areas such as economic policy. He retorted: “From grey mouse to putschist – that was quick.” Mr Van Rompuy possesses real expertise in economic matters. This proved useful almost from day one of his presidency. For his first crisis, one which in many respects is still with us, was the eurozone sovereign debt and financial sector crisis.
Eurozone leaders didn’t cover themselves in glory in handling this crisis, especially in the first two years when the big issue was Greek debt. Some key decisions, and mistakes, were made by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and former president Nicolas Sarkozy of France, with other leaders cut out of the loop. In this way, the “Merkozy method” exposed the limits of the Council president’s authority. Nonetheless, Mr Van Rompuy untiringly stood up for the common interests of the eurozone bloc and the EU as a whole.
So let us hear it
One more time for Herman Van
Rompuy. You did good.
Categories: Leadership in Politics