Sunday, Nov 15th, 2009
One is a young, dynamic reporter with a blond quiff who roams the world in search of adventure. The other is a greying, diminutive politician with glasses, a penchant for poetry and a love of country life. On the face of it, Belgium’s national hero, Tintin, could not be more different from the man who is tipped to be chosen as the European Union’s first president next week.
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.”
This article was posted: Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 6:22 am