By Jeroen van der Kris in Brussels
Not long after Herman Van Rompuy unexpectedly became prime minister of Belgium late last year, he went on a skiing holiday to Austria -- by overnight coach. He didn't intend to suddenly start living a life of luxury, he said. Last summer Van Rompuy ventured out quite a bit further, to Australia, but he travelled economy class.
The 62-year-old politician likes to project an image of modesty. In a recent interview he admitted he still can't bring himself to call the German chancellor by her first name. "I just can't do it. I'm too timid," he said. Now this shy politician will preside over meetings between Angela Merkel and the 26 other government leaders of the EU bloc.
The new EU president's life motto is "rustige vastheid" or "quiet determination." It is also the name he gave to his house in Rhode-Saint-Genèse, a wealthy suburb south of Brussels, right on the linguistic border between the Flemish and French-speaking parts of Belgium.
As prime minister, Van Rompuy brought back calm to Belgium, after what was the worst political crisis in the country's 180-year history. For this reason French-speaking politicians in Belgium are sorry to see him leave for Europe. The stage now seems set for the return of fellow Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme, whose stubbornness brought the country to the brink of a break-up.
Views on Turkey
Much is unknown about the new EU president, including what his ideas about Europe are. In the past few weeks an old statement by Van Rompuy about Turkish entry into the EU was unearthed.
In December 2004 Van Rompuy, a member of Belgian parliament at the time, said: "Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe (...) The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey." Asked about his views on Turkey at Thursday's press conference, Van Rompuy said: "My opinion is not relevant."
Van Rompuy is a practicing Catholic who belongs to the conservative wing of the Flemish Christian Democrat party CD&V. He was once featured on the cover of a Belgian magazine, together with his brother Eric, also a politician, as 'the conscience of Flanders.' The sixties mostly passed him by, he has said in interviews. He saw the movie "Woodstock," but decided it was not part of his world. He prefers the Beatles to the Stones, and he enjoys Leonard Cohen.
Former Budget Minister
But a hardcore conservative he is not. When Elio di Rupo, the homosexual chairman of the French-speaking socialists, was -- unjustly -- accused of paedophilia a few years ago, Van Rompuy was one of the people who stood up for him.
Even though Thursday's European summit was only the sixth he has attended, he is no stranger to the EU. As budget minister (1993-1999) he prepared the ground for Belgium's adoption of the euro. His father was a professor of economics; Van Rompuy himself studied both economics and philosophy.
Ironically, he came close to becoming Belgian prime minister in 1994, when Jean-Luc Dehaene looked set to become president of the European Commission. Van Rompuy was supposed to take Dehaene's place, but British Prime Minister John Major vetoed Dehaene.
Belgian commentators have pointed out that Van Rompuy's appointment must be particularly painful for another former Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who also came close to becoming Commission president, but was vetoed by Tony Blair five years ago.
'Dialogue, Unity, Action'
Van Rompuy is the antithesis of Verhofstadt, an eternally optimistic liberal who is full of grand ideas about the future of Europe. Van Rompuy, by contrast, likes the haiku, a very short form of Japanese poetry. In his vision, an optimist is "a badly informed pessimist."
For all the credit Van Rompuy has recently been given for keeping Belgium from falling apart, it must be noted that Van Rompuy hasn't brought the country closer to a lasting solution either. He brought calm to the country mainly by not discussing the main issues separating the country's six million Flemish and four million French-speakers.
"My whole political life has been about mutual understanding, and I intend to continue on that route," he said in his acceptance speech on Thursday evening. Being Belgian, he easily switched between French, English and his native Dutch. In the latter he said there has been much debate recently about what the profile of an EU president should be. "There is only one profile," Van Rompuy said, "one of dialogue, unity and action."
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