European Council: The “grey mouse” has made his nest
23 February 2012
He may avoid the limelight on the European stage, but in two years, Herman Van Rompuy has discreetly taken control. For the moment without a challenger, on 1st March he will most likely be chosen for a second mandate as President of the European Council.
Herman Van Rompuy may well be viewed as a grey mouse, but amid one of the worst crises in the history of the continent, the President of Europe has succeeded in obtaining a second mandate without any controversy whatsoever. According to sources in Brussels, next week [at the 1st and 2nd March European Council meeting] European leaders will reappoint Herman Van Rompuy for a further two and half years [he was originally appointed in December 2009].
When you meet Herman Van Rompuy, age 64, you are immediately struck by the atmosphere of calm that inevitably surrounds him. Elsewhere in the brown-walled building with antiquated lifts where his office is located, diplomats from Europe’s 27 member states do battle with the immense task of negotiating measures to counter the crisis. Raised voices are not uncommon. The North and the South are diametrically opposed. National interests and emotions prevail over other considerations. However, Herman Van Rompuy appears completely unaffected by all of these intrigues.
A slightly boring image as an unredeemed swot
Herman Van Rompuy deliberately cultivates the “grey mouse” image, however, the reality of the man is very different. He has a warm personality, and a taste for an occasional glass of beer, and – notwithstanding his slightly formal manners – he knows how to put people at ease. He also has a gift for motivating his staff – everyone in Brussels wants to work for him.
That said, he is also crafty and sufficiently tough to eliminate his opponents at a distance. For example, when the then prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, sent him a list of reforms, Herman Van Rompuy refused to sign the acknowledgement of receipt until the list contained all of the items he wanted included.
He was the one to find a solution to the impossible demands made by Finland, which insisted that Greece provide guarantees for any loans it provided. When a large number of European government leaders expressed support for the introduction of eurobonds, which the German Chancellor refused to tolerate, Herman Van Rompuy masterminded an agreement to postpone discussion of the issue – until the questions that Angela Merkel was willing to discuss had been settled. Herman Van Rompuy kneads and forms the political agenda, while always remaining at a distance. As a former Belgian Minister of Budget, he is one of the rare politicians to be speak with authority on the crisis, in which he has played a crucial role.
Well aware that as a president of heads of state, he should be careful not to stand out and avoid direct criticism of other leaders, he has rarely been able to fully express his point of view. The haikus he writes are the sole indulgence he has allowed himself to brighten a slightly boring image as an unredeemed swot. But even these haikus have attracted a cult following.
Herman Van Rompuy is a spiritual man
Modesty is a watchword for Herman Van Rompuy who has to act as president for everyone, with a brief to satisfy 27 employers while steering Europe in the right direction.
Mr Van Rompuy has acted as a rampart and a reliable source of support for Germany and France, while at the same time ensuring that Europe’s two major economies do not decide everything as a tandem – a hegemony that would never be accepted by smaller member states. With this in mind, he discreetly moves behind the scenes to steer diplomats in the “right” direction.
No doubt this is source of his personal calm he generates not only for others, but also for himself, and without which he would go completely mad. Herman Van Rompuy is a spiritual man. As he has said in one interview, “You have to acknowledge that some things will remain out of reach.” And as a first step: “It is important to be modest with regard to oneself, if one is to avoid being aggressive.”