Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Herman Van Rompuy: Not Such a Wimp, After All?

Herman Van Rompuy
Artful EU Leader
On the left, or on the right?
(Matthew Busch, AP: New York Times)

When Herman Van Rompuy was selected President of the European Council last November, his ascendency was met with neither cheers nor jeers, but puzzlement. "Who's Herman Van Rompuy?" people were asking. I was one of the baffled. Didn't the EU want somebody well known, some political heavyweight like Tony Blair? "Apparently not," was the inference, as previously puzzled pundits pondered the choice and determined that Van Rompuy had been chosen because he was a nonentity.

Well, maybe he's not such a nonentity, after all.

According to Steven Erlanger, in "Two Competing Visions of a European Economy" (New York Times, July 1, 2010), while the EU officials have been slow "to work out their new institutional arrangements . . . [since] ratification of the Lisbon Treaty last December," Van Rompuy has proven more effective:
Under that treaty, the new European president of the council of national leaders, Herman Van Rompuy, an economist and former Belgian prime minister, has moved more quickly than others to establish a powerful staff. Given the urgency of the economic crisis and the need for decisions by national leaders, he has managed to "presidentialize" decision-making, undercutting the influence of the European Commission, national finance ministers and the Eurogroup led by Jean-Claude Juncker, which sets economic policy for countries using the euro currency.

While not able to impose his will on Mr. Sarkozy or Mrs. Merkel, who dislike each other, Mr. Van Rompuy has worked hard to be a discreet and calming intermediary, senior European officials say. Europe's institutional confusions have made the French-German relationship even more important, rather than less, these officials say.

Mr. Van Rompuy's negotiating skill has also overshadowed José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the permanent bureaucracy, which has had little to offer in a crisis founded in the debts and budget deficits of governments in the 16-nation euro zone. Even worse, France and Germany have sent relatively weak commissioners to serve in Brussels, and Germany in particular has been adamant in refusing to cede any new economic powers to the commission. Mrs. Merkel also insisted that Mr. Van Rompuy, not Mr. Barroso, be put in charge of a task force to recommend euro-zone reforms.
Hmmm . . . sounds like he's making his presidency more than merely a ceremonial position. This could mean that he's simply good at bureaucratic infighting and tactical maneuvering, though he actually sounds more diplomatic than that, but the real question is whether or not he has any strategic vision for the EU as a whole and a breadth and depth of insight to assume genuine, effective leadership.

I see from Wikipedia's entry on him that he has relatively tough views on EU membership, enunciated with respect to Turkey's potential for membership:
"An enlargement [of the EU] with Turkey is not in any way comparable with previous enlargement waves. Turkey is not Europe and will never be Europe . . . . [I]t's a matter of fact that the universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also the fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."
A citation is given for this, but the link goes to an article by Manu Tassier in De Standaard (November 19, 2009) that one would have to pay for to read, and it isn't in English anyway, so I can't vouch for the English quote based on this alone, though the article title, "Pers boos om 'anti-Turkse benoeming'," translates as "Press anger at 'anti-Turkish appointment'" -- referring to the press in Turkey, it seems, which was apparently angered by Van Rampuy's selection as European Council President -- so he begins to sound to me like somebody more than a nonentity.

Moreover, I have found the English version of the quote cited by Wikipedia by looking elsewhere on the internet. According to Tom Heneghan, "Does Europe's new prez really think it's a Christian club?" Reuters (November 20, 2009), Van Rompuy did indeed speak as quoted by Wikipedia:
"Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe. An expansion of the EU to include Turkey cannot be considered as just another expansion as in the past . . . The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."
Mr. Heneghan goes on to note more about Van Rompuy's religious views:
Van Rompuy, a Christian Democrat, is a believing Catholic who has no problem saying so in public. He attended a Jesuit high school in Brussels and the Catholic University Leuven. Back in 1985, he wrote a book entitled Het christendom. Een moderne gedachte (Christendom, a modern idea), which is now out of print.

Van Rompuy’s personal blog (mostly in Dutch and French, some English) has a whole section on religion and several commentaries, articles and speeches posted on the blog deal with religous and philosophical issues such as the Dalai Lama and Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate or a discussion about love with the agnostic French thinker Luc Ferry.
I can't read Dutch well enough to look further into this issue on Van Rompuy's blog, but from the evidence uncovered, he would seem to be a far more complex, interesting man than the pundits first thought.

Only time, however, will tell whether he has true leadership to offer the EU.

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