Author: By Vanessa Mock in Brussels
Unlike Hergé’s boy reporter, Herman Van Rompuy was virtually 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 Belgium
back from the brink of collapse thanks to his adroit political manoeuvrings,
the twinkle in his eye and a generous dose of wry humour.
Short in stature and slight of build, 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. Mr Van Rompuy
was drifting towards retirement when he was plucked from his MP’s office at
the end of 2008, amid a spiralling crisis that threatened to split the
country’s Flemish and French-speaking communities and made Prime Minister at
the behest of King Albert II.
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, Mr
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.”
Belgium’s media pour accolades on their saviour, hailing him as a “miracle
worker” and “minimalist sage”, but he remains a remarkably
discreet and private figure. Married with three children, the economist
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 as
well as becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Speaker of parliament.
Yet many Belgians like him best for his quirky passion for haiku, a
17-syllable form of Japanese poetry, which he composes in Flemish. Despite
many painstaking efforts by the media to extrapolate political messages from
them, Mr 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 quotes and poems from his
favourite writers rather than to politics. Nor does it contain many
references to Europe. Although he has not dipped his toes in European or
foreign affairs, opting instead for a national focus, Mr Van Rompuy says his
Jesuit upbringing imbued him 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 European Jesuit
colleges in Europe. That left a deep impression on me because I realised
that we were all deep down so very similar,” he told Le Vif magazine
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 grow and expand beyond its borders.”
Belgium’s politician-poet has kept characteristically quiet on the question of
whether he would like to have the continent’s top 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 at 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
Despite being the current front-runner, Mr Van Rompuy is probably
well-prepared for disappointment if European leaders decide to pluck another
name out of the hat at their summit on 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.”
Poetic licence: The EU in verse
Independent staff were challenged to write a Brussels-themed haiku.
This is what they came up with. Think you can do better? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Yellow stars lost in the blue;
Now they can orbit
Vote Haiku Herman.
Within Brussels has sprouted
Bitter taste for Blair.
He writes poems!
That should cheer dull hours
Of talks on iron ore tariffs.
And cheers the President,
Or is that Presidio?
Vintage wine at lunch:
Expensed. At least it’s
not American, you claim.
Europe pluribus unum,
But don’t tell Ukip:
They just want unum.
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