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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Herman van Rompuy – the ‘grey mouse’ president of the European Council is finally roaring in his last interview with the Dutch press. Why the European Union owes him very much, for his unexplicit and non self-centered leadership.

If you encounter a worthy human,
Try to follow his lead.
If you encounter an unworthy human,
Assess yourself

Herman van Rompuy, the departing, Belgian president of the European Council has been ‘the mother of all grey mice’. Nevertheless, this is the man who guided the European Council – and thus the European Union as a whole – through the biggest crisis of its sheer existence. We – the Europeans – owe him a lot for that. And now, he speaks out in his final, personal interview with the Dutch press…

Herman van Rompuy, the departing, Belgian president of the European Council, is not a man to leave a long-lasting impression at first glance. People could justifiably call him ‘the mother of all grey mice’: a politician so non-descript and uncharismatic, that you could wonder whether he recognizes himself in the mirror in the morning.

This – as well as his undeniably pro-European, but yet fairly moderate political stance  is something that is often held against Van Rompuy by more charismatic and less civilized national and European politicians. Politicians like the Dutch Party for Freedom’s rabble-rouser Geert Wilders and UKIP’s Nigel Farage, whose only real strenght seems to be their power to offend other people.

Still, if we look at Herman van Rompuy’s achievements during the nearly five years of his presidency, one could not deny that it are particularly his hard to overestimate diplomatic skills and unexplicit, non-self centered leadership, that saved the day for the European Council and – as a matter of fact – the European Union as a whole.

Van Rompuy never seemed to look for the diplomatic trenchlines and was always willing to disregard his own ego, thus giving the government leaders the chance to flaunt with his ideas and his precooked plans.

With his diplomatic skills par excellence, he could guide the European Union through the biggest crisis of its sheer existence and prevent the European Council from falling into the abyss of self-centeredness and political implosion.

Many people will probably never realize how close a Grexit (i.e. Greece leaving the EU) has been during the last five years and nobody will ever know what the consequences of this step would have been for the union as a whole. Also the smouldering, British forest fire has been kept more or less under control until now, through his guidance.

Although I have pleaded for more charismatic political leaders in Europe myself, on a number of occasions, I realize very well that much of Van Rompuy’s success was based on him being uncharismatic and non-descript, but also extremely persistent and patient.

And now, as the time of his resignation from the European Council and the end of his political career is approaching, Van Rompuy took the time to speak with the Dutch press in a last, personal interview. 

It was a surprisingly emotional interview from this ‘cool cat’ politician. Here are the pertinent snips of this interview with Ulko Jonker and Rik Winkel of Het Financieele Dagblad:

Herman van Rompuy, as first steady chairman of the European Council also known as ‘the unofficial president of Europe’, feared for the euro twice. 

First, at the G20 in Cannes in November, 2011 [for some background information, please see this articleEL] and second, during the summer of 2012, in the time between the announcement of the bank union and the redeeming promise of ECB-president Mario Draghi ‘to buy unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds’.

“That August was really a horrible month. I was at holiday in Spain and truly wondered in which Euro-country I would return”, Van Rompuy confesses.

“Cannes was the absolute low for me. The Greeks wanted a referendum; not about the euro, but regarding the package of austerity measures that they had to deploy. With this particular definition, we were convinced things would end in catastrophy. Fortunately, we could convince them to abandon this plan”. In Cannes, people were also fearing for Italy. “The Greek economic problem could have been contained, but the Italian economy was a whole different ball-game. The whole climate was horrible, with even President Obama assessing the viability of the Euro-zone. We have had some dramatic meetings with him”.

With Van Rompuy at the helm, the power of the European government leaders has rapidly expanded, through the European Council. This was mainly caused by the crisis, which required overnight decisions, in which loads of tax money would be at stake. 

These affairs were so sensitive, that they could only be arranged at the highest political level, according to Van Rompuy. “The main question was: ‘Do we survive or do we not?! It was this decision or a catastrophy’. The steady chairman helped to maintain continuity, according to him. “People discovered that we could be trump card. Imagine that we should have battled the Euro-crisis with six, rotating chairmanships: six prime ministers that would have to learn things all over again?!”  

His biggest worry for the future, and consequently for the new Polish chairman of the Council, Donald Tusk, is the lack of French/German impulses. “I would prefer that the French/German axis would still exist and would be as strong as it has been in the past. I did my utmost to reinforce this axis. Let I be very cautious by stating that the relation could be improved this very moment”.

When asked about UKIP’s mockery, Van Rompuy reflects: “Someone can only be really hurt by people they respect. If such things keep you awake at night, you cannot function. Some members of the European Council experience a hundredfold of my inconvenience.

This is partially caused by these council members themselves. It is a handicap for the European concept, that some people act if they had not been present at the council meetings after all. I am now mentioning an extreme case and I’m definitely not referring to Mark Rutte [Still, the name has been dropped and not by coincidence, in my humble opinion EL].

On the question, whether the European Council has been sitting on its arms since 2012, when the worst crisis had been solved, Van Rompuy responds: "When the crisis had passed, further reforms became more difficult. I wanted to make structural reforms enforcable. Yet, there is much resistance and I did not want it to end in failure. If my successor wants to expand the Economic and Monetary Union and there is no acute crisis, two conditions must be met: the European Commission must play a more explicit role and there should be a stronger French/German cooperation”.

I do not want to make a holy man of Van Rompuy at all. In some recent situations, the European Union (European Council) has shown very poor judgment.

Especially in the Ukrainian situation, the European Union has acted so recklessly and undeliberatly, that Putin could easily put the EU and the NATO in the same political corner, for ‘trying to achieve an agressive, expansionist politics, that is threatening the sheer existence of Russia’. We in Europe might not understand that, but the Russians, who experienced numerous cases of foreign aggression on their home turf in the past, swallow this message like candy.

Also the smouldering forest fire, caused by the possible British referendum about EU membership and the mounting British hostility against the EU, has festered for much too long these days. While Van Rompuy helped to contain the problem, he did not SOLVE it.

Still, I consider Van Rompuy a man to whom the Europeans owe very much; whether you like him or not.

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