Author: By Vanessa Mock
Wearing a loose-fitting suit and a look of surprise tinged with amusement, Herman van Rompuy cut a diminutive figure among his boisterous colleagues. Unusually in this divided country, Flemish nationalists teamed up with Walloon socialists during Prime Minister’s question Time in the Belgian parliament to salute their unlikely national hero. In a nod to his premier’s famous love of verse, one MP recited the opening stanza of a Flemish poem as a tribute, which Mr Van Rompuy then spontaneously completed.
No one can have been more taken aback than Mr Van Rompuy himself when the EU’s 26 other leaders confirmed weeks of fevered speculation to back him as the first-ever European Council President. Lightly built and softly spoken, Mr Van Rompuy would readily admit that he is the very antithesis of the most obviously presidential Tony Blair, his earlier rival.
Despite stints as budget minister and deputy prime minister, Mr Van Rompuy has chosen to spend much of his long political career well away from the limelight, beavering away behind the scenes to cut deals between his country’s bickering French-speaking and Flemish communities.
It is this skill of quietly brokering compromises that prompted King Albert II to summon the 63-year-old Christian Democrat on a cold December day at the end of 2007, as the country was gripped by political tensions so great that they fanned fears that Belgium would split in two. Almost immediately and imperceptibly, Mr Van Rompuy brought calm to the troubled waters. This, despite his initial reluctance to accept the job in which three others had failed that same year, and just at a time when he was looking forward to his retirement, indulging his love of reading and caravanning.
“He’s the kind of politician who operates in the shadows. But just because he prefers to stay away from the public glare doesn’t mean he’ll be altogether invisible,” said a former ministerial colleague, Johan Vande Lanotte. “He is very cautious and is a man who likes to take his time, which was the right approach to take in Belgium. But he might find it hard to adjust to the faster pace of the EU.”
Other ministers praise Mr Van Rompuy’s wry sense of humour and cynical take on the daily political goings-on, when he often throws in a tongue-in-cheek aside. But his unique trademark is his passion for composing haikus, a form of Japanese poetry, which he publishes in a leading Flemish daily. These compositions are miniature odes to nature and the outdoor life, a setting in which he seems most at home.
“He’s a very different kind of politician. It’ll be interesting to see what the rest of Europe makes of him,” said Lukas de Vos, a Belgian commentator.
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