Herman Van Rompuy: How to be friends with everyone without being liked by anyone

By Annamária Tóth | 7 March 2012

To quote this document: Annamária Tóth, “Herman Van Rompuy: How to be friends with everyone without being liked by anyone”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 7 March 2012, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1449, displayed on 03 February 2023

During the meeting of the heads of state and government of the European Union on 1 March 2012, the second, hardly mediatized and yet important, election of the President of the European Council took place. The only candidate was the current president Herman Van Rompuy, about whom we often hear that he is too invisible and his work too inefficient. Why elect him nonetheless?

One of the reasons for Van Rompuy's new candidacy: there seems to have been no other candidate. A European Union in the midst of crisis, the shadow of the Sarkozy-Merkel couple and the difficulty to find a unified voice in the cacophony of the 27 seem to make the office of the President of the European Council rather unattractive. However, it is exactly his capacity to build compromise and his invisibility were at the origin of “HVR's” nomination in November 2009. If he has not always been in the spotlights, he has nonetheless presided the European Council and has defined the role of its president despite the weak points of the Treaty on this subject.

“Mr. Nobody” defines the role of the President of the European Council

When Van Rompuy was nominated, the other main candidate, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seemed too charismatic and well-known – the decision was thus made to elect a President of the European Council who could, as Ricard and Stroobants put it, “instill what he [H. Van Rompuy] calls 'team spirit' among the heads of state and government.” However, this decision disappointed all those who wanted to give a real face to the EU.

The echo of the press was not positive either: just as for the nomination of the High Representative of the European Union and Vice-President of the Commission, Catherine Ashton, another innovation of the Treaty of Lisbon, the tone of the remarks was, to say the least, cynical. The new President was called “Mr. Nobody” in the British press. Nigel Farage, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), went even further at Van Rompuy's first appearance at the European Parliament: You have the charisma of a wet mop.” A year later, in a comic video, Van Rompuy was portrayed along former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt who said: “Herman is so discrete, so discrete, that even when he is there, you cannot see him.” Van Rompuy's efforts to be present in the social media such as Facebook, Twitter, or his page Ask the President have been not changed much about this image.

“A natural coordinator role”

In other words, Van Rompuy was elected for his expertise in economy (the former Belgian Minister of Budget graduated from the Catholic University Leuven in Applied Economics), his European engagement and his capacity to forge a consensus (which he had proved during his mandate as Belgian Prime Minister in 2008 and 2009), rather than his charisma and fame. He does not see his role as that of a president in the traditional sense of a leader, but rather as a chairman: “In order to create a truly presidential-type mandate […], the fusioning of the European Commission and European Council presidencies would have been necessary. […] I am in a natural coordinator role, facilitating consensus and compromise among the twenty-seven,” Herman Van Rompuy explains himself (see on this subject Szalai, 2011). In his acceptance speech for his second mandate, he also describes himself as the “guardian of the unity of the 27”. It is indeed this role that the Treaty defines, limiting itself to saying that the role of the President is to “chair it [the European Council] and drive forward its work” (Art. 15(1) TEU), to prepare the European Council summits, and to facilitate consensus.

Presiding the European Council in times of crisis

Nominated for the first time on 19 November 2009, Herman Van Rompuy started his mandate with a tour of the twenty-seven Member states in the midst of the Greek debt crisis. He soon put in place one of his strategies, which was supported by the urgency of the crisis: to organise summits of the European Council. During this first year in office, Van Rompuy called upon six meetings of the European Council, one of which was informal, and two summits of the members of the Eurozone.

His second year in office was not less tiring as there has ever since been a need to stabilise the euro, to outline European economic governance, to relaunch economic growth, and to act on the world stage, as the President himself explains in the brochure “The European Council in 2011”: “In 2011, there were five formal European Council meetings, an extraordinary one, one informal meeting of the European Council members, as well as four separate summits of the heads of state or government of the eurozone, which I also chaired.”

This kind of meeting is from now on a formalised procedure with the “Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union,” thus widening the mandate of the President of the European Council to also chair the summits of the Eurozone countries. Herman van Rompuy will continue to put emphasis on the economy, competitivity, creation of jobs, and stabilising the euro during his second mandate, and intend[s] to remain true to [his] style and working methods. His other priorities will focus on European enlargement to Croatia and Serbia and the EU as an international actor.

In the shadow of the Heads of State and Government…

The role that Herman Van Rompuy has played in these events has to be seen in the context of the reforms introduced in the Lisbon Treaty. Two European institutions are the big winners of this revision of the Treaties: the European Council and Parliament. According to Alain Dauvergne, “[t]he national political leaders have taken over at the helm” to the detriment of the European Commission, not only because of institutional changes but also because of the economic crisis. The place of the European Council President in this situation is not easy. He has to find the middle road between the role of a partner equal to the national members of the European Council and that of, as Desmond Dinan calls it, a “servant”.

In addition, “HVR” has found himself several times in the shadow of the Franco-German couple. The Deauville compromise on the reform of the Growth and Stability Pact is but one example. More recently, the Franco-German couple has clearly influenced the agenda and the final declaration of the Eurozone summit on 30 January 2012 in the form of a preparatory document. However, as the analyst Piotr Kaczyńsky explains: “Those who set the agenda of the EU Council are people around Herman Van Rompuy. If France and Germany want to have an input on that, they should transmit their ideas to Herman Van Rompuy.”

However, Dinanunderlines that the presence of a permanent President, who knew how to define his role according to his own strategy, has nonetheless benefited the European Council. Even though Van Rompuy has not proven stronger than the French President and the German Chancellor, Dinanargues, he has shown a certain continuity, which the rotating presidencies could not have done because of the short ness of their presidency and their internal problems.

… as well as the President of the Commission and the High Representative?

While Van Rompuy had to find the means to lead the summits behind the scene in the European Council despite the omnipresence of certain national leaders, he also had to find his place between the Commission President and the High Representative. The task to represent the EU abroad can indeed conflict with the role of the President of the Commission as far as, for example, international trade is concerned. In order to prevent conflicts of interest, José-Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy are meeting once a week. They have found a way to share the role of representation according to which the President of the European Council deals with foreign affairs and diplomacy, while the President of the Commission is responsible for economic and commercial questions – according to Herman Van Rompuy, this agreement allows to truly speak (and listen) to the 27.”

The other challenge of the European Council presidency is to not enter into conflict with the role of the High Representative defined in the Treaty. Catherine Ashton has to supervise EU foreign policies, whereas the European Council President's task is, “at his level and in that capacity,” to “ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy” (Art. 15 TEU). This makes the hierarchy between Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton blurred. Indeed, according to Dinan, the trio of Barroso, Ashton and Van Rompuy is not a solution to a central difficulty, which should have, however, been resolved in the Treaty of Lisbon, namely to define the external representation of the EU – on the contrary, this “may well bemuse or befuddle the EU's international interlocutors.”

Herman Van Rompuy: The only candidate to his succession?

All in all, in the two years of his presidency, Herman Van Rompuy may have enlarged his role by taking the initiative to summon the European Council in a more frequent manner, but his powers remain limited – despite his engagement to be the guardian of the unity of the 27.” These limits show a certain lack of readiness on the part of the Member states. The designation of Herman Van Rompuy, Tony Barber explains, has demonstrated a willingness to create a more efficient leadership of the European Council in the context of a recently enlarged Union, but without giving the European Union a personality who can oppose in a decisive manner the control of national leaders on the direction they would like to give to European integration. Within this framework, Herman Van Rompuy has had to – and will have to – act as a negotiator, represent the EU abroad and be “friends” with all the members of the European Council and the European Parliament. All that, without being necessarily liked by everyone, especially not by the media. However, if he has been reelected, it is because he has been able to come up to this paradoxical role in a context of even more paradoxical and complicated power relations between the national and European levels.

Another question is the lack of transparency created in this situation, an old criticism towards the Council. The nomination procedure remains obscure and limited to the heads of state and government, an electoral college that could be enlarged, for instance, to members of the national or European Parliaments according to the researcher Thierry Chopin. Chopin also talks about the possibility of official declarations as to the candidacy or recorded debates during which the candidates would outline their programmes. Two years later, the selection of the European Council President was even less transparent: for example, the greater public did not know about any of his priorities until after his nomination, in his speech of acceptance. The same question lies at the origin of a campaign that a student of European Affairs has recently launched on the social networks, Tug 2012(“Yes, EU can!”): what kind of legitimacy does the designation give the President, especially if some days before (and after) the election, there is no debate around the question?

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe

On the Internet

To see

To read

  • RICARD, P., STROOBANTS, J.-P., « Herman Van Rompuy, le stratège qui veut rester anonyme, » Le Monde, 27 septembre 2011

  • SZALAI, P., « Michel Barnier a proposé de fusionner les postes de Président du Conseil européen et de Président de la Commission européenne. Quels en seraient les avantages et les inconvénients ? » Épreuve orale du diplôme non publiée, Sciences Po Paris, 2011

Photo source: "President Van Rompuy speaking at the Informal Meeting of Members of the European Council, Brussels, 30 January 2012", on Flickr