Steady at Europe’s helm

BRUSSELS – When a U.N. visit was cancelled abruptly in September, the European Union’s new president, Herman Van Rompuy, headed instead for somewhere he says he feels really at home: Affligem Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in the countryside here, founded in 1062.

Van Rompuy spent a day in a simple room, attending services and eating in a cavernous hall where monks listen to readings from a library of 70,000 books. And he also likes the beer, one of Belgium’s most famous, now brewed under license from the monks.

At 62, Van Rompuy (pronounced ROM-poi) is suddenly a prominent man, the head of the council of 27 government leaders who make up the real spine of the European Union. It is a task requiring subtlety, manipulation and the ability to cajole everyone from big countries and small – with combustible personalities like President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and more stolid sorts like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, none of them with small egos – to agree on agendas and policies.

He got good marks for handling the leaders during Europe’s existential crisis this year over Greek debt and the crash of the euro.

“If the euro zone had fallen apart,” he said in a long interview in his office here, “it would have been the end of the European Union.”

Those who wanted a major charismatic figure to speak for Europe – Tony Blair openly campaigned for the job – were making a grave error, Van Rompuy said.

“Trying to be the first man in Europe and no one else around you would be a real catastrophe,” he said. “If you want to be the president of Europe with a high profile, you immediately come into conflict with other European institutions and member states. There are nuances, of course, depending on your ego, but there is only one way to do it: with a mixture of leadership and giving others the way to play their role.”

He said: “I call myself a facilitator.” Then he said: “You cannot govern Europe against the member states.”

Van Rompuy, an economist and former centre-right prime minister of Belgium, is more or less the antithesis of the modern politician, about as far from Blair or Sarkozy as possible. He has been married for 33 years to a biologist, and he has four children and two grandsons.

Bookish and unassuming, he writes haikus, utters no sound bites, spins little and seems happy to discuss how he lost his faith in God at 12, as he prepared for communion, and then suddenly regained it in his mid-20s.

He is a classic European Christian Democrat who keeps his religion out of politics but believes in ethics and social justice. He was even, he admits, a rabid republican as a teenager, wanting to dump the Belgian monarchy, but he had a strong relationship with King Baudouin I and now with King Albert II, “so I left my republican ideas a long time ago.”

Most strikingly, he insists he never wanted most of the top jobs he has held, presenting his rise as a series of unfortunate but unavoidable political accidents. When he was pressed to become the president of the European Council, he had led Belgium for less than a year and was virtually unknown abroad.

But since he left the post of prime minister, Belgium has lurched from crisis to crisis, still without a stable government. And he has impressed many with his handling of the euro crisis, his managing of deep French-German differences and his ability to extend his influence in a manner that has sometimes threatened the European Commission and its president, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Van Rompuy stands out because he seems to have a modest but coherent strategy for the European Union. Without revitalizing its economy, he argues, Europe cannot afford its cherished way of life, and national leaders must take collective responsibility for the larger economy and not just their own. He has played an important role in efforts to toughen rules governing the euro, so that national economies are more tightly monitored and wayward nations face sanctions.

He had a successful, quiet career in Belgian politics, heading his party and becoming deputy prime minister and budget minister. In 1994 he nearly became prime minister. But when events conspired against it, he was relieved, saying: “I didn’t feel ready.”

Van Rompuy’s period as prime minister is seen as one of effective compromise on fervid issues of language rights and federalism between the Walloons and the Flemish.

“I had a very important task in Belgium,” Van Rompuy said. “I felt I was the only one capable of finding a solution. There are moments you’re irreplaceable and others you can die and be replaced the next day.”

But he took the job of E.U. president anyway.

“The only offer I could not refuse was the offer of 26 other countries,” he said.

Four months later, the Belgian government fell and his own party suffered. Asked if he felt guilty for abandoning Belgium, he said: “I feel sorry but not guilty anymore.”

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