The Belgian anti-hero who is set for European stardom
One is a dynamic, young hero with a blond quiff who travels the globe in search of adventure. The other is diminutive politician-poet with a bald patch and a love of country life.
On the face of it, Belgium’s national hero, Tintin, could not be more different from the man who may be chosen as the EU’s first President next week. Unlike Hergé’s boy reporter, Herman Van Rompuy was a virtual unknown outside of Belgium until a few weeks ago, when his name began to do the rounds in Brussels as a possible candidate for the newly created post of President of the European Council.
Yet the Belgian Prime Minister is seen by many of his own countrymen as an unsung national hero who has quietly pulled his nation back from the brink of collapse thanks to his adroit political manoeuvrings, a twinkle in his eye and a generous dose of wry humour.
The 62-year old is a master of understatement who would be the first to admit he stumbled into high office by accident and says he prizes intelligence over hard work.
Short in stature and slight of build, Van Rompuy was drifting towards retirement when he was plucked from his parliamentary seat and put in the prime minister’s office at the end of 2008 at the behest of King Albert II, amid a spiralling crisis that threatened to split the country’s Flemish and French-speaking communities.
He made no secret of his reluctance to take on the near-impossible job of keeping Belgium’s brawling politicians from one another’s throats over issues ranging from the national budget to immigration.
Three prime ministers had come and gone in one year, yet within just a few months, Van Rompuy worked his discreet magic to quell the political flames, switching effortlessly from his Flemish mother-tongue to French to heal the rift between the two language groups.
“He’s no big hitter, but don’t underestimate Herman Van Rompuy,” says Liesbeth van Impe from Belgium’s daily newspaper, Het Nieuwsblad. “This country was in a terrible state and he’s managed to bring peace and stability. Today, there are no more newspaper headlines predicting the collapse of our country. But now, everyone is worrying about what will happen when he’s gone.”
The country’s media pour accolades on their saviour, whom they refer to as their “miracle worker” and “minimalist sage”, yet he remains a remarkably discreet and private figure. He is a married father of three and an economist who graduated from the venerable University of Leuven. He cut his teeth at the Belgian central bank before embarking on a long parliamentary career that has seen him preside over the Flemish-branch of the Christian Democrats (CD&V) to becoming deputy prime minister and speaker of parliament.
Yet many Belgians like him best for his quirky passion for haiku, a 17-syllabled form of Japanese poetry, which he composes in Flemish. Despite many painstaking efforts by the media to extrapolate political messages from them, van Rompuy’s three-lined compositions are most often mini-odes to nature. His words paint pictures of birds flitting across open skies and the setting of the sun on the Belgian countryside or the coastline as a metaphor for inner serenity. “I breathe easy,” was a recent last line.
Tellingly, his homepage is mostly devoted to his favourite writers, with quotes and poems, rather than to politics. Nor does it contain many references to Europe. Yet despite the lack of obvious European credentials, van Rompuy says he was imbued from his early years at a Jesuit college with a strong European identity.
“When I was a student, the memory of the war was still fresh in everyone’s minds. So our teachers organised exchanges with students from other Jesuit colleges in Europe. That left a deep impression on me because I realised that we were all deep down so very similar,” he said in an interview with Vif magazine last year. Political colleagues also point to his avid interest in the drafting of the European Constitution, which has now been replaced by the Lisbon Treaty. “He saw it as the great adventure of the 20th century,” says one. “He wants to see Europe grown and expand beyond its borders.”
Herman Van Rompuy has kept characteristically quiet on the question of whether he would like to have the job, knowing full well that a noisy candidacy would most likely spoil his chances. “The most important thing now is not to say the wrong thing,” he told Belgian reporters during a recent EU summit. One political colleague commented: “He knows what he’s doing. That’s why he’s been opening his mouth only to breathe!”
Despite being the current frontrunner, Van Rompuy is probably well-prepared for disappointment if European leaders decide to pluck another name out of the hat at their summit next Thursday. He might seek consolation in one of his favourite quotes by the German pianist Alfred Brendel: “I am always pessimistic, in the hope of being surprised."
Radio Netherlands / Expatica