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Belgium’s Haiku-composing leader set for EU presidency

BRUSSELS – Flemish yet francophile, the 62-year-old Christian Democrat prime minister has for months navigated a minefield trying to stablise the European kingdom divided between its Dutch-speaking north and poorer French-speaking south.

In the end it was those qualities of a fixer, and perhaps his very modest amount of charisma, which appealed to European Union leaders most, as they searched for a technocrat to be the face of the new EU from next year.

A political moderate, open to compromise like the famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Van Rompuy prefers a more austere style, using his "little grey cells" to overcome his country’s problems.

Born on October 31, 1947 in the Brussels suburb of Etterbeek — home to what is now the European quarter — Van Rompuy was educated in the capital and studied philosophy and economics at university.

A grey, bespactacled man, he is a practicing Roman Catholic and has four children with his wife Geertrui, Europe’s new first lady.

Van Rompuy has written several books and his sense of humour shows through in his penchant for poetry. He likes to keep a blog updated with his latest compositions in Haiku, the 17 syllable form of Japanese poetry.

He 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, which covered the period when Belgium adopted the euro, the single European currency.

Van Rompuy became president of the Chamber of Representatives in 2007, at a particularly tense period between the Dutch and French-speaking regions, and last December let King Albert II persuade him to become prime minister when another crisis hit.

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

He is "more cerebral, whereas I’m a man of action" said his younger brother Eric Van Rompuy, a deputy in the Christian Democrat party who is involved in pushing for improved rights for Dutch-speakers.

Van Rompuy has never cut a ruthless, ambitious figure in Belgian political circles, a factor certainly not lost on EU leaders. Just a few days before taking the prime minister’s post he said he was not in the running.

He has hardly been more loquacious about his chances of becoming Europe’s first "George Washington," in reference to the United States founding father.

"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.

So far, Van Rompuy’s time as prime minister has been deemed a success. When he delivered the 2009 budget in October the leader exerted a quiet authority over proceedings.

When Spain, Belgium and Hungary met last month to prepare their six-month presidencies of the EU, Van Rompuy rounded off the event with a Haiku he had composed during the discussions.

The three countries will take the rotating presidency in succession — Spain in the first half of 2010, Belgium in the second half and Hungary in early 2011.

Political scientist Pierre Vercauteren said that given the hard task already faced by Van Rompuy as Belgian leader, "his sense of humour could certainly be useful."