Here Comes the Belgian!


At last the hullabaloo is over – the shouting has ceased, the bunting taken down and the confetti swept away. All of which, of course, is nonsense. On 19th November 2009, there was no drama, not razzmatazz or triumph, no public electioneering, no voting crowds.  

Instead, the final act of the long-cherished Lisbon Treaty, to appoint this unifying figurehead along with a corresponding Foreign Minister, was in  

fact a rather limp affair.  



Europe got a leader, all right, but one seemingly renowned for his reticence, whose very lack of public profile and world-stage charisma apparently made him the obvious choice for the post. That man is Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy. Europeans can be forgiven for not knowing much about the modest Belgian – he has, after all, only being in charge of the country since December 2008.  He writes Haiku and likes caravanning, hardly the mettle of a revolutionary. But the man chosen by the EU heads of state has the precise qualities that are needed for the job – he is, as his proponents continually point out, a consensus builder, no ‘Flash Harry’ but instead a man who cultivates trust, unlike, say, rival for the position Tony Blair, whose enthusiastic support for the war in Iraq, not to mention his showbiz style, did not exactly endear him to all and sundry.  


If it was the wish of the EU to ensure that its first President was a low-key appointment, then it has succeeded. It is the somewhat anti-climactic accumulation of a process that began way back in 2001, and a far cry from some of the drama and backroom shenanigans that categorized the long fight for complete ratification. Back then, it was an embryonic European Constitution, an idea emerging from the Nice Treaty that the EU, then in the process of enlarging to include states from former Eastern Europe, would need some sort of robust framework.  



The idea was worked on until it was finally worked out, under the Irish Presidency in 2004. The Irish electorate (which had previously rejected, then accepted, Nice) would, of course, kick up a little bit of trouble of their own on the rocky road to Lisbon, but back then it was all self-congratulation. Then the Dutch and the French had their say – the  

Constitution was rejected in referenda, and the idea scuppered. Something new was needed. Enter the Germans. Under their Presidency in 2007, the idea of a new, Reform Treaty was furiously worked upon. On 13th December of that year, negotiations on the content of the text were finalized in the city of Lisbon, and four days later, Hungary became the first Member State to adopt the new Treaty. Everything, it seemed, was OK again. Then, in June 2008, the Irish held a referendum. The Lisbon Treaty was soundly rejected. Eurosceptic governments in Poland and the Czech Republic clapped their hands in glee, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were livid, the Irish government was apologetic – this was it, the end of the line.  

Well, not quite. As with Nice, Ireland simply held another referendum, this time using the threat of economic isolation as grounds for acceptance. It worked, and on 2nd October 2009 (after the government had gone to Brussels with a bit of deal-making of its own), Ireland overwhelmingly accepted Lisbon. Now the only hold-outs were Poland and the Czech Republic.  

Poland, sensing the writing on the wall, grudgingly signed the Treaty into law not long after the Irish vote. Arch Eurosceptic Czech President Václav Klaus was left as the only barrier to complete ratification. The Constitutional court was considering its legality. Sarkozy was fuming, rumours of diplomatic threats were rife. It was all unbearably tense.  



In the end, even Klaus buckled. The last opposition to Lisbon had been removed. Now,all we needed was the right person for that most important of jobs. Tony Blair was the early front-runner; he had the experience, the charisma, the stomach for the world stage. What he didn’t have, as it turned out, was friends, and when Germany and France both hinted that a good administrator (rather than a global superstar) was needed, Blair’s chances began falling away rapidly. The Belgians can justifiably argue that the first European President should come from their small country; after all, it was one of the founders of the Coal and Steel Community. But, even before he was formally chosen, van Rompuy had won plaudits for his ability to smooth over the sometimes fraught relations between the Walloons and Flemings, and during the Presidency negotiations a new rumour began to emerge. Might not a Belgian President actually unify the country, as their man represented the European Union around the globe? Could it be Europe, in the end, that held the country together? Fanciful stuff, maybe, but the point remains that, for the next two-and-a-half years at least, Herman van Rompuy will be the EU’s public face on the world stage. Immediately after the announcement of his appointment, he was receiving messages of congratulations from Europe and elsewhere – US President Obama was one of the first world leaders to offer his support. So, perhaps it would be wrong to dismiss national pride as a healer in times like these? Over to you, Herman…