Cometh the hour, cometh Van Rompuy?

February 8, 2010

van rompuy2Three months ago, Herman van Rompuy might have struggled to be recognised on the streets of his native Belgium, let alone Paris or London. The bookish former prime minister, a fan of camping holidays and Haiku poetry, was nothing if not low-key; a studious consensus builder in the world of Belgian politics.

Three months on and Van Rompuy, 62, may not outwardly have changed much, but his title and the expectations surrounding him certainly have. In November he was chosen to be the first permanent president of the European Council, the body that represents the EU’s 27 leaders, and on Thursday he will host those heads of state and government at an economic summit in Brussels — the first such gathering he has chaired.

With Greece under extreme pressure with its mounting deficit and debt problems, and Portugal, Spain and Italy threatening to go the same way, the summit comes at a critical time. It is perhaps the most serious test of Europe’s monetary union since the euro single currency was introduced 11 years ago.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, some might say, even if one wonders whether Van Rompuy would have been the first name on most European leaders’ lips at such a pressing time.  But Van Rompuy it is, and he has his work cut out if he is going to seize the moment and tackle one of the EU’s biggest problems.

First he must put Greece and debt on the agenda. As it stands the summit is only scheduled to discuss the EU’s 2020 strategy (a plan to boost growth over the next decade), Haiti, governance and climate change. And once he has put Greece firmly on the table, he must ensure that EU leaders give it serious, hard-nosed discussion, even if that means broaching super-sensitive issues such as what plans the union has to bail Greece out if it comes to it.

Van Rompuy, with his thinning grey hair and professorial air, may not look like the sort of man to squeeze decisions or commitments out of the likes of French President Nicolas Sarkozy or Germany’s Angela Merkel. But his record suggests he has hidden depth and a command of the issues that may prove handy.  

A student of philosophy as an undergraduate, Van Rompuy went on to gain a master’s in applied economics and then worked for the Belgian central bank, before going into politics. As Belgium’s budget minister in the 1990s, he was instrumental in helping to drive Belgium’s debt down from a peak of 135 percent of GDP, higher than Greece’s debt pile is right now. In his one-year stint as Belgium’s prime minister, he won plaudits for his ability to build consensus, steering Belgium’s notoriously fractious politics away from the brink on several occasions.

His love of 17-syllable Japanese verse and his understated manner aside, Van Rompuy has an opportunity on Thursday to show that the office of EU president is one of action and decision, not a figurehead role for someone who is soon forgotten.

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