Van Rompuy : Belgium's Mr Fixit becomes Mr EU

30th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

More poet than pit-bull, Herman Van Rompuy, who becomes the EU's first president on Tuesday, earned his reputation as a quiet negotiator at the head of a fractious Belgian coalition government.

BRUSSELS - Flemish yet francophile, in his 11 months as prime minister he stablised a kingdom divided between its Dutch-speaking north and poorer French-speaking south.

The grey, bespectacled Roman Catholic has now risen effortlessly to Europe's new top job, which he never campaigned for and said he never sought, until he accepted it earlier this month.

It was his reputation as Belgium's Mr Fixit, and perhaps his very modest amount of charisma, which appealed to European Union leaders most in their search for a technocrat to be the face of the new EU without overshadowing them.

He is "more cerebral, whereas I'm a man of action" said younger brother Eric, an MP and a more outspoken champion of Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Born in 1947 not far from what is now the European quarter of Brussels -- Herman Van Rompuy was taught by Jesuits and studied Thomas Aquinas before dedicating himself to economics and politics.

A good sense of humour runs through his penchant for poetry. He likes to keep a blog updated with his latest Haikus, the 17-syllable form of Japanese poetry.

Political scientist Pierre Vercauteren said that given the task in hand "his sense of humour could certainly be useful."

The now former PM has spent much of his political career in Belgium's lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Representatives, as a member of the Flemish Christian Democrats.

He led the party between 1988-1993, and then served as budget minister under Jean-Luc Dehaene, presiding over Belgium's adoption of the single European currency.

Van Rompuy became president of the lower house in 2007, at a particularly tense period between the Dutch and French-speaking regions, and last December King Albert II persuaded him to take on the job of prime minister when another crisis hit.

His predecessor -- and successor -- Yves Leterme could not navigate the linguistic minefield and after a year of trying stepped down amid allegations that his aides sought to influence a court ruling on the break-up of Fortis bank.

Van Rompuy, a father of four, has never cut a ruthless figure in Belgian political circles -- a factor certainly not lost on the EU leaders.

Just days before taking the prime minister's post he said he was not in the running.

He was hardly more loquacious about his chances of becoming Europe's "George Washington."

"Already in 1994 I found myself faced with this question. I did not wish it then. In 15 years, I have not changed my mind. Politics is not everything in life," he said recently, before his anointment.

But when he delivered the 2009 budget in October the leader exerted a quiet authority over the proceedings.

He is less of a rampant federalist than Guy Verhofstadt, a Liberal predecessor as Belgian PM.

That helped him to avoid the fate of Verhofstadt who, in 2004, was favourite to become EU Commission chief, until Britain blocked him.

His ability to bring feuding factions together is bound to be put to good use in Brussels.

After his nomination eurosceptics reproached him for his former support for a European "green tax," which they saw as a kind of camouflaged federalism.

Those fears were fed on Saturday when Van Rompuy told a young audience in Brussels that he is a "European federalist" while assuring that he is "not a fundamentalist".

Meanwhile the Greens asked him to explain his opposition, in the name of Christian values, to Turkish entry into the EU.


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