Hardly a year ago, the former CD&V Chairman had found peace and quiet in the secure position of Speaker of the Lower House. This position offered the perspective of a distinguished exit from the world of politics. At the end of last year, it seemed as though he had no ambitions of becoming Prime Minister. Or at least that’s what he tried to make everyone believe. King Albert talked him into it. He was the only acceptable candidate to succeed Yves Leterme (CD&V), the current Minister of Foreign Affairs.
As Prime Minister, he made quite an impression in the international arena. By remaining silent, if you ask his detractors. But they are confusing silence with reserve. In addition, Van Rompuy is blessed with the gift of diagnosis, synthesis and a philosophical humor. These traits alone will take you far. Europe has no use for iconoclasts, the old continent is crying out for calm steadfastness. He will soon be the first President of Europe. Never in his wildest dreams could the Christian Democrat have thought that the best was yet to come.
‘In our regime, power is spread out, just like manure. It is so spread out that no one can enforce his will. As a consequence, the most powerful decision-makers are facts, and economic facts in particular.’
Van Rompuy distilled five projects for his term as Prime Minister. Three of those are still under construction: budget, asylum and migration, nuclear energy. Discussions regarding state reform and the splitting of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electorate are yet to begin. There was still no solution in sight for these difficult community issues. With regard to the budget and asylum, the Prime Minister came under fire on an almost daily basis. Nobody, not even the European Commission, was particularly impressed with his two-year budgetary plan. Despite a regularization, which is not allowed to be referred to as such, the asylum problem appeared to be equally unsolvable.
The criticism leveled at the Prime Minister was as hard as nails. And Van Rompuy himself was well aware of this. He was just as keen to avoid being accused of equanimity. The man simply made do with the means at his disposal. His five-party coalition was a monstrosity; a legacy of the Liberal, Guy Verhofstadt who, at the end of 2007, cleaned up the mess made by Yves Leterme, the man first charged with forming the new government. The chemistry was missing from the start. Although the Liberals and Christian Democrats found common ground on the Flemish side, the Walloon ménage à trois between CDH, MR and PS looked more and more like a Nordic troll. Van Rompuy’s goal was to watch over the Belgian “firm” like a responsible parent who accepts the rules of the system, at least until 2011. Beyond that, however, his library and seaside holiday home beckoned.
‘Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names,” is an old English saying. It might not be very Christian but I have often applied it.’
‘Public life is regarded as the crown of a career and, to a young man, it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honorable adventure.’ Van Rompuy carries the words of the Scottish politician, John Buchan, with him every day in his wallet. He built a life based on service to the community. In the early 1970s, he started his professional career as an attaché in the research service of the National Bank. Before long, he ended up in the cabinets of Minister and Prime Minister Leo ‘Mister Europe’ Tindemans — who is still a close confidant today — and the late Gaston Geens, who became the first Minister-President of Flanders. Van Rompuy, once youth chairman, had the reputation of being an economics buff of conservative, ethical conviction. As a student in the rebellious 1960s, he lived such a ‘normal’ life that we was branded as being ‘abnormal’.
Twenty years ago in 1988, his name appeared on the list of national party candidates. The Christian Democrats were stranded in their search for a new chairman. Seven candidates put their names forward. In the end, it was Van Rompuy who got the nod, until then the Director of the Cepess research bureau. For him, it was a boyhood dream come true. It was just the start of five extraordinarily difficult years, however. In 1990, for instance, he underwent the legalization of abortion. For Van Rompuy, this remains one of the most traumatic events of his political career.
The debate about the termination of pregnancy struck to the core of his commitment as a politician of faith. Although he showed a great deal of sympathy for women in ‘need’, he felt that ‘consciences can only be permanently formed if there is a consciousness of good and evil, far removed from the trivialization in which every man makes his own standard.’ From within his personalistic vision, it was unthinkable that abortion or euthanasia could be carried out against the will of the hospital, the doctor or the patient in question. Ethical questions cannot be decided by majority vote but require a broad social platform. Van Rompuy regarded the progressive faction with deep-seated suspicion.
‘I forgive a lot because I forget. And that is no merit to that.’
In the spring of 1992, he steered his party through the extremely shaky early months of Dehaene’s first term in office. Van Rompuy braved a party conference in which his infuriated colleagues nearly physically accosted him. ‘Political courage is being able to stand alone,’ was his conclusion. The Minister of State learned that gain and loss were mutually endeared. In September 1992, Dehaene’s government was going nowhere. There was no prospect of a decent budget, nor did Dehaene succeed in negotiating a community agreement between Flemish and French-speakers. After a party ultimatum, the workhorse achieved the unthinkable. Van Rompuy underwent a metamorphosis from the most maligned chairman into a genuine statesman, complete with standing ovation. A year later, he accepted a post in government to put the budget back on track once and for all.
Together with Dehaene, he became the most important architect of the crisis policy that steered Belgium into sound budgetary waters, enabling it to join the euro zone in 1998. The two trusted each other unconditionally. Van Rompuy stood ready to replace Dehaene when the latter was called to chair the European Commission in 1994. The British Prime Minister John Major, put a spanner in those works, however. In 1999, the two-term Prime Minister announced his intention to only complete half of his third term in office. Van Rompuy closed in yet again. It was not be , however. The Dioxin Affair brought Guy Verhofstadt to the post of Prime Minister at No. 16.
Suddenly, something became stuck to Van Rompuy, however hard he tried to ignore it. He was the man who just could not become Prime Minister. During the regional election campaign of 2004, Verhofstadt made a cruel reference to the fact. ‘I don’t know for sure whether I dreamed it or if it was real. But a small, skinny man was already taking down the measurements of my office at No. 16. He turned around and it was Herman Van Rompuy. There is only one way to avoid this nightmare: we have to win the elections!’ he sneered during a campaign speech. That Van Rompuy, after a stop-over as Prime Minister, has succeeded in reeling in the top European post for which Verhofstadt fought so dearly must taste like sweet justice.
Van Rompuy never liked Verhofstadt. He was sick and tired of his struggle for grassroots democracy and political renewal. The man from Brabant also held little regard for all the emotional-politics that were more about perception than content. And he despised his voluntarism and his governments. ‘Rarely have I ever heard so many lies in politics. He infuriates me. Truth does not exist but lies and untruths do.’ It was his sense of irony that kept him going. ‘If I had a belly, I would split my sides laughing,’ he once sneered in the direction of the Liberal ministers.
In that sense, Van Rompuy showed his hand as a politician of the previous generation. A man who was averse to idolatry and who turned his nose up at a passage in the monthlies or in the society pages of the newspaper. He prefers quiet contemplation in the Affligem Abbey or an introspective walk on the beach to fashionable coquetry and culinary delights. To him, eight years in opposition was like endless dawdling, ‘a period of appearing to do nothing while preparing for all manner of activities.’
‘Vanity is one of the most ridiculous emotions. This is why I will never really write memoirs. To do that would be as if I had done or experienced something extraordinary. And that is not the case.’
After the last elections, he reconciled himself with a role as Speaker of the Chamber of Representatives. He passed up the opportunity for a final fling as a minister who would no longer be in charge of his own agenda. At the end of August 2007, he was also forced to scout out the political minefield to facilitate the formation of a government. From experience, he knew that the task of forming a government was not compatible with a communitarian “High Mass” that would draft the future shape of Belgium. His approach was a breath of fresh air after all kinds of delusions about the end of Belgium state. King Albert was sold on the Christian Democrat, who must surely have felt like he was the Last of the Mohicans within his party. He wrestled with the lack of respect that the new face of CD&V was showing for the old guard. The generation conflict was symbolic of the gap widening within the CD&V between the ‘separatist’ (Flanders over Belgium) and ‘federalist’ (Belgium over Flanders) factions.
It would seem as though all traces of that gap have since disappeared from the current landscape. Everyone celebrates Van Rompuy as a hero. The French-speakers are in the front row: for them, Van Rompuy must seem to be the ultimate savior of the Fatherland. But even within the CD&V, he has showered discontent with success. After a few very turbulent political months, his approach had something of a soothing effect. Debates about the future of Belgium were silenced. With extraordinary dexterity, he made his unlikely coalition ‘work’.
Just like his dedicated buddy, Dehaene, Van Rompuy learned his trade at a time when the various communities in Belgium still talked to each other. Like no one else, he knew that multilateral dialogue could lead to historical results. Here too, calm steadfastness comes before revolutionary delusions, which might be good for public opinion, but otherwise aim too high. In Franco-German eyes, this same attitude made Jean-Luc Dehaene into a suitable candidate to chair the Commission in 1994. It’s now Van Rompuy’s turn to make good use of this typically Belgian characteristic.
Excerpts from Van Rompuy’s booklet: ‘De binnenkant op een kier. Avonden zonder politiek (A peek at the inside. Evenings without politics)’ (Lannoo, 2000).